June Yea’s and Nay’s

Halfway through the year! It’s been pretty great, book-wise. Here are the books I read in June and my brief recommendations on whether I think they’re worth a look.

The Cuckoo’s Calling J.K. Rowling YEA. A great start to a series I know I’ll be reading in its entirety.
Famous Baby Karen Rizzo NAY. It’s okay, but there are better books of its type.
Independence Day Richard Ford YEA. I would never presume to tell someone NOT to read Richard Ford. But despite this book’s Pulitzer Prize, I preferred his more recent novel, Canada. Though of course the writing itself, in both books, is as good as writing gets.
Ruin and Rising Leigh Bardugo YEA, if you’ve read the first two and enjoyed them.
The Silkworm J.K. Rowling YEA, it was great fun, and even better than Cuckoo’s Calling.
The Leftovers Tom Perrota MAYBE. It’s a thoughtful, though not groundbreaking book.
The Snow Child Eowyn Ivey YEA. I unreservedly loved this simple, eerie story, and Ivey’s calculatedly restrained style.

The Silkworm, by J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith

After enjoying the debut mystery in J.K. Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike* detective books, I of course wondered whether the books to come would be as enjoyable. I’m glad to report that at least this second installment is even better than the first, having a more interesting plot, deeper character development, and a surer handling of the elements pertaining to its genre: the clues, the red herrings, and the inevitable denouement.

silkwormIn The Silkworm, Strike takes on a case from Leonora Quine, the plain-faced, middle-aged wife of philandering author Owen Quine. Owen Quine has seemingly disappeared for the past three weeks. Though Quine often disappears for days at a time to write or to meet other women, his wife finds this particular disappearance strange not only because of its duration, but also because shortly before disappearing, she spoke with her husband about his newly-finished novel, Bombyx Mori (The Silkworm). He was excited about what he perceived as a rave from his publisher, and was gearing up for a major round of publicity to sell what he thought would be his best work yet.

“I knew you would,” says Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott, when he asks her how she knew he would take the case. “She’s your type,” Robin explains. Robin knows Strike well enough to know what a sucker he is for lost causes, and how much he sees his job as a way to help people, and to right injustices. The desire for justice is one Robin shares, which is part of why she is willing to help Strike do detective work for a relatively low-profile client who may or may not be able to pay.

Since solving the Lula Landry case and inadvertently humiliating the police as a result, Strike has been experiencing a degree of notoriety and a steady stream of well-paying clients looking for surveillance on their unfaithful spouses. But something about Leonora’s plainness, straightforwardness, and lack of entitlement touches him. That Robin realizes this speaks to the understanding she has nearly always had of him, and how it has grown since their meeting. In this book, she continues to prove herself invaluable to Strike, and even to surprise him with talents he could not have guessed. Despite Robin’s engagement to another man and Strike’s history of dangerous women, Rowling continues to hint at the possibility of future romance for these two, and I have to admit I hope it never goes any further. Their partnership is a beautiful thing as-is.

In working on Quine’s disappearance, Strike discovers that Bombyx Mori is a grotesque kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the main character is an underappreciated genius who undergoes all manner of torment at the hands of the characters he meets on his journey. These characters are thinly-disguised caricatures of the people in Quine’s life, and his depiction of them and the secrets he hints at metaphorically are enough to turn any of these people against him. Rowling archly opens each chapter with a quote from different Jacobean revenge plays, suggesting that the grotesqueries of Bombyx Mori are at play in her novel as well, and that she is having terrific fun with it, dropping clues and planting false turns left and right.

The reader has terrific fun as well: Rowling is evidently well aware of the Hitchcockian delight readers can take in despising perpetrators of abominable acts even as we read of their acts for pleasure. Strike and Robin are too sympathetic and intelligent for us to root for the villains, but we get the best of both worlds in being able to wallow in the perversity of the crime before turning smugly self-righteous when Strike and Robin figure it all out.

And it’s no spoiler to say they do figure it all out. The Silkworm, like Cuckoo’s Calling, is fairly formulaic: Strike takes the case, embarks on an RPG-like round of talking to all the villagers suspects, sometimes more than once, a few dangerous scenes ensue, personal lives complicate things, and then Strike has his Sherlock moment, during which he puts it all together, and we know it’s only a matter of time before we’re happily settling in for his ten-page explanation of How it All Happened. But Rowling’s gift has always been to take a well-worn story and polish it up new. She gets better at it every time.

 

*Does anyone else hear “Cormoran Strike” and think it sounds like a move from Street Fighter II?

Famous Baby, by Karen Rizzo

FamousbabyThe blurb on the back cover of Famous Baby notes that author Karen Rizzo’s plays “have been staged at several theaters.” With its larger-than-life characters, spontaneous and slightly incredible emotional vicissitudes, and tragicomic misunderstandings, Rizzo’s first novel would in fact make a fine play, and would possibly work even better that way than it does as a novel– but there’s plenty here as it is to keep a reader turning pages and feeling not unsatisfied upon turning the last one.

On the first page, even before the prologue, we learn that Ruth Sternberg is “The First Mother of Mommy Blogging.” That is, she was the first major blogger to rise to prominence for publicly detailing motherhood in all its joys and agonies. Of course, her main topic of discussion was her daughter Abbie, who at eighteen has had quite enough. Upon learning that her mother plans to move her dying grandmother, Esther, into her home for her final days– and blog about it with the help of hidden web cameras– Abbie suggests a “vacation” to her grandmother.

She sweeps Esther off to Arizona, where she hopes to steal a few more precious moments of privacy before her grandmother passes away. Shortly thereafter, Ruth sets out to find Abbie and bring Esther home. Meanwhile, Abbie’s father, Justin, decides to show up to check on his daughter, and a documentary filmmaker, Eric, uses any means possible to track down Abbie to convince her to work with him on a film about her life.

Of course Abbie’s motives aren’t entirely noble; she wants to stick it to her mother almost as badly as she wants to spend some undocumented time with her beloved grandmother. But then, Ruth’s motives are equally complicated. Ruth loves Abbie, but is self-centered, and somehow never connects Abbie’s resistance to being written about with the possibility that she may have legitimate reasons to resent being treated like a character in her own life instead of as a real person with feelings. Ruth is too busy nursing a wound that is the one secret she does keep.

When the novel works, it works because the main conflict is believable and well-conceived. The free-spirited but self-involved mother and her more responsible daughter are characters we’ve seen before, especially in film, but Rizzo’s use of mommy blogging as a source of conflict wrests a wry smile of recognition out of the reader and refreshes what might otherwise have been boilerplate in substance if not execution. Ruth’s combination of insecurity, flair for drama, and lack of sensitivity make her interesting (her blog would almost certainly be just as famous in real life as it is in the novel), and Abbie is relatable in her indignation and desire for the “normal” childhood she is too young to know that no one has ever really had.

Among the book’s other attributes is Rizzo’s careful ear for voice. Her confident handling of dialogue means that her characters, when they’re speaking, “sound” different from one another. Ruth and Abbie’s alternating chapters are different in tone and register as well as in content.

Notwithstanding voices and personalities of Abbie and Ruth, other characters lack presence. Justin, Abbie’s father and Ruth’s formerly beleaguered spouse turned New Age, yoga-teaching, chi-balancing ex-husband, contributes little to either the atmosphere or the plot. Eric the filmmaker literally stalks Abbie in order to goad her into working with him, but is supposed to be an acceptable love interest for her because he’s extremely good-looking and hey, a nice guy behind all his creepy stalking and refusal to accept Abbie’s adamant “no.” These characters might work better in a play, where the immediacy of the presentation and/or talented actors might make us suspend our skepticism long enough to accept them first and analyze them later. In a novel, they ring false. The borderline farcical feel of the plot demands the anchor of characters we can believe in.

While these drawbacks weaken any dramatic impact the resolution might have had, Famous Baby is really about having a bit of fun, anyway. This explains why things tie up a little too neatly at the end: there’s not that much to tie up, and we’re not meant to be left with much to puzzle out. Though the book does not impart the kind of satisfaction a reader feels upon seeing the elements of a more layered novel come together, there’s equally nothing to detract from the fact that Famous Baby is sufficiently enjoyable as long as it lasts.

This book was given to me free of charge for advance review as a popmatters.com reviewer.

On Ruth Graham’s Slate Article About YA Fiction

Just a few things to say about this article.

1. It’s one thing to say readers miss something when they confine themselves to reading YA and quite another to say adults who read YA should be embarrassed. The author makes the former point in the second half of her article, but leads with the latter point. So which is it?

2. Graham claims that most YA novels “consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.” She writes this immediately after citing Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars as books that made her roll her eyes. Without posting any spoilers, I can only point out that neither of these books have unambiguous or simple endings, and that if they do indulge in a sentimentality representative of the extreme emotions teenagers often feel, these indulgences occur as counterpoints to some very “adult” situations.

3. Graham also critiques the YA genre by claiming that “[Adult readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Says who? No one says you have to read a YA novel and get no more out of it than an average thirteen year old would. She mentions Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game as having been a book she enjoyed when she was young, then says she has no desire to read it again now that she’s older. However, if she did read that wickedly funny, smart, and observant book now, I’m betting she’d pick up on about a million small things even a highly intelligent teen reader would be apt to miss, and even if such a reader did note such details, he/she would lack the experience needed to fully understand them.

4. So in that case, what is YA, anyway? Graham differentiates between the likes of Twilight, which is considered to be weak literature by and large, and the likes of Eleanor and Park, which was published to near-universal acclaim. Graham is correct to note that there are different kinds of YA, but she doesn’t go far enough. Different kinds of books are often marketed as YA simply because they feature teenage protagonists. To declare that adults should find YA “embarrassing” to read is to declare that readers, instead of making their own critical judgments about books, should simply dismiss many excellent novels out of hand simply because a publisher decided that this was how to best make money on a book.

These are my reactions off the top of my head, but at the very least, I think I can definitely say that Graham’s argument is at best unclear. She does make the point that we lose something by restricting our reading entirely to YA, and on that point I agree, though for YA, you could substitute nearly any other genre.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

cuckooCormoran Strike is in a bad place. He owes money to his deadbeat rockstar father, his girlfriend has just left him, and he’s living on a fold-out cot in the inner office of his private detective agency. To make matters worse, he’s neglected to properly cancel his contract with the temp agency, and they’ve sent along a new temp, whom he can’t afford.

The temp, meanwhile, has been having a great week. Robin Ellacott’s boyfriend has just proposed, she’s caught up in an ecstatic whirl of wedding planning, and she’s just landed a temp job at a detective agency. Nobody knows, but Robin has always secretly been fascinated by detective work.

On Robin’s very first day, Cormoran is asked to take on a case for John Bristow, brother of famous model Lula Landry. A short while back, Lula was found dead on the sidewalk next to her apartment building, having presumably jumped– but her brother believes she was pushed, and wants Cormoran to find out why.

It should be no surprise that Rowling does mystery well– each of her Harry Potter books contained a mini-mystery or mysteries that led up to Harry’s final confrontation. But in this book, Rowling juggles various elements with a more practiced aplomb, a neat-handedness that wasn’t as evident in her most famous works to date. She gives us a page-turning mystery novel that stands on its own alongside an informative, but not excessively expository, introduction to the protagonist of what will be a series of novels.

Cormoran Strike, as the down-on-his luck former war hero wallowing just a bit in self-pity, seems in the abstract like someone we’ve seen before. Rowling uses his physicality to distinguish him and bring him to life. The descriptions of him as being a large, imposing man with coarse, curly hair (they called him “pube-head” in high school), and something of a Resting Surly Face, fix him in the reader’s mind, and Rowling follows this through by showing other characters’ reactions to his intimidating presence. He regularly showers in a gym to which he doesn’t belong and is never questioned because of the authoritative manner in which he enters the facility. When Strike is alone, he nurses his private weakness: a below-the knee prosthesis on one leg, in replacement of the leg he lost in an explosion while at war. The descriptions of the way he mistreats himself physically mirror his emotional shame over where he currently finds himself in life.

The relationship between Strike and Ellacott is slow at first, but built to last. Ellacott, though younger, friendlier, and more optimistic than Strike, has at her core the same kind of energetic zeal that compels Strike to do whatever it takes to gather clues. He first notices that she is organized and efficient, then that she is a kind and tactful person, and finally that she is intelligent and has a natural flair for detective work. Ellacott, for her part, looks at Strike’s current state of financial and emotional depression, and instead of disdaining or pitying him, respects his commitment to being self-sufficient. She looks past his messy office and personal life, and sees the order inherent to his thought process and manner of attacking a case. Rowling leaves their relationship, and their individual characters, plenty of room to grow in future installments of her series.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, for all the turns of its plot, is in itself a simple novel. There are no technical acrobatics here; things happen one after the other, the clues build up, and Strike lays it all out for us in a long explanation near the end. Yet the inevitability of progress is immensely satisfying and always fun. It’s likely each Cormoran Strike novel to come will be of the same stamp. We’ll always know what we’re in for, and we’ll be happy to get it.

May’s Yeas and Nays

Awwww, yeah. Rhyming.

Here are the books I read in May, and my capsule recommendations on whether I think they’re worth anyone else’s time.

Jasper Jones Craig Silvey YEA. Solid YA that zips along and keeps you in suspense.
The Chaos Walking Trilogy: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, Monsters of Men Patrick Ness YEA. Brutal but riveting dystopian sci-fi YA.
Duplicate Keys Jane Smiley NAY. I just do not understand the hype surrounding this novel. I was looking for a good literary-ish mystery and was disappointed.
Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel MAYBE. If you like historical fiction and want something really impressive. If you don’t like historical fiction, you’ll still be impressed, but maybe not enthralled.
The Death of the Heart Elizabeth Bowen YEA. If you like early 20th century Brit fic and feel like being righteously pissed and also kind of sad, teenage-girl-style.
Sweet Silver Blues Glenn Cook MAYBE. If you want some kooky fantasy that has a whiff of the Gentleman Bastards series but is not really as good.
All the Birds, Singing Evie Wyld YEA. Literary thriller that you will read it in a day, hoping to dispel its cloud of menace. Then you will turn back to the beginning and read at least the first five chapters over again immediately.

Honest Plot Synopses: The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

Since becoming an e-reader user a few years back, I’ve realized just what a  big role book covers and synopses play not only in my choosing a book, but also in maintaining my interest. There really is something about the cover art, the font chosen, the texture of the pages, that gives off cues about the kind of book we’re reading, and I miss those cues when I’m using the e-reader. For instance, I really liked the cover art of my most recently finished novel, The Death of the Heart:

Bowen

 

It tells you a lot about the book.  The black dress indicates mourning, and the beautiful door shows that the girl lives in some degree of wealth. The girl has an open, intelligent, and somewhat expectant expression, as if she has asked a question she is waiting for you to answer. This all fits the character of Portia Quayne as we come to know her. Plus… it’s pretty. :)

And then the synopsis on the back of the book leads us strangely astray:

While her novels masquerade as witty comedies of manners, set in the lavish country houses of the Anglo-Irish or in elegant London homes, they mine the depths of private tragedy with a subtle ferocity and psychological complexity reminiscent of Henry James. The Death of the Heart, a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence, is perhaps Bowen’s best-known book. When sixteen-year-old Portia, recently orphaned, arrives in London and falls for an attractive cad — a seemingly carefree young man who is as much an outsider in the sophisticated and politely treacherous world of 1930s drawing rooms as she is — their collision threatens to shatter the carefully built illusions of everyone around them. As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sharp sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations.

So then I read the book and was like, “Whut. That description reminds me of the time in 5th grade I submitted a report on Mozart entirely based on watching the movie Amadeus.” In other words, it sounds like a description of the parallel-universe version of the same book.

Here, friends, is my Honest Plot Synopsis of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart:

In this angry-as-hell book that doesn’t even try to masquerade as a witty comedy of manners, Elizabeth Bowen skewers a bunch of pretentious assholes with all the insight and none of the light-handedness of Jane Austen. This girl Portia, who is only 16, has just lost her mother after a childhood of moving from hotel to hotel and not really having any stability or friends, and now she has to go live with her half-brother, Thomas, who feels awkward about her because she was born of their father’s extramarital affair. Even though none of that is Portia’s fault, Thomas has to be guilted into allowing her to stay with him and his wife for a year in their London home.

Meanwhile, his vain and insecure wife, Anna, reads Portia’s diary and gets all offended because Portia sees through everyone’s fakery. Instead of being a freaking adult and deciding that oh, maybe she shouldn’t read other people’s freaking diaries, Anna walks around huffy for the rest of the book. Oh, and she’s also pissed because one of her boy-toys that she likes to keep dangling just to get the attention? Decides he’s going to pay attention to Portia instead.

This boy-toy is Eddie, the “attractive cad” who is creepy as fuck because he is 23 and trying to hang with a 16 year old! And Anna and Thomas continually comment on how this is kind of weird and yet at no point do they shut that shit down and protect Portia like, you know, responsible adults would. Meanwhile, poor love-starved Portia goes Teen Beat levels of crazy for Eddie, and he has some fun jerking her around but also gets angry with her for being so trusting, because that forces him to confront the fact that he is a flat-out asshole. I wouldn’t call their relationship a “collision” so much as an unfortunate instance of contact, like when you accidentally brush against someone sweaty on public transit.

Her only real friend is the cranky maid, who at least makes sure she has some warm cardigans to wear.

This book will piss you off and make you think about when you were a teenager and adults were frickin’ phonies, and how dammit, they still are, Holden Caulfield was right, but dude, doesn’t a buttered scone with some strong black tea sound fantastic right now?