Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (nudge, wink)

Hey! I made it through a J.K. Rowling book that wasn’t Harry Potter! I put this one on hold right after I found out who really wrote it, determined to try liking an adult book she wrote after my struggle with Casual Vacancy, which I admit with shame that I still have not finished. This one did not disappoint. It’s a standard mystery: a detective is hired by the brother of a dead girl to prove that her suicide was really murder. There are red herrings galore, and I admit freely that I had the villain picked twice – and was incorrect both times (she never fooled me with Severus Snape, but she fooled me twice with these people). The thing that takes this book a step above your standard mystery is the characters – the detective, Cormoran Strike, is a refreshingly complex hero who, if you heard his story secondhand, you would think was a total loser – but he isn’t, and in fact as you read and observe his methodical approach to the case, you start to admire his skills even as you shake your head at his poor life choices. His sidekick, temporary office help Robin, is also charming – she has the perfect life with a loving fiance and corporate job all lined up, but once she discovers the thrill of detective work…well, you get the feeling her life is going to follow Cormoran’s right off the cliff, but it’s going to be a hell of a trip. The various friends, family, and hangers-on of the dead girl are likewise fascinating creatures, even though most of them have few redeeming qualities. (The cast consists of fashion models, film executives, a law firm full of squabbling family members, and assorted drug addicts. These people aren’t exactly people I would choose to hang out with.)

If you like your mysteries action packed or very suspenseful (Harlan Coben, anyone?), this one probably will not be a favorite. But if you like mysteries that force you to figure out what makes a potential villain tick in order to solve the mystery (think Tana French or Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books), you will most likely be satisfied.

Long, rambling plots that allow a character to develop over time

Instead of reviewing a particular book today, I wanted to talk about what happens when I try to advise a person on what to read and then discover a “theme” that all of the books they’ve liked have in common. This makes it so much easier to recommend something. Even if the style of book they like isn’t my particular cup of tea, it is easier to find read-alikes once I know what their “hook” is.

For example, there are some readers out there – and when I meet one, I always want to go out for coffee and write down everything they have read that I haven’t – who love, as I do, the Long Rambling Novel. You know – those weighty tomes that allow you to watch a character go through (occasionally improbable but always exciting) events one after the other, as they strive toward some goal that always hangs just beyond their grasp, or try to solve some mystery that they just can’t crack. These books are often historical, and involve actual people and events, but shown from the protagonist’s perspective. This gives them a nice basis in reality no matter how fanciful the plot gets. My ultimate example of the Long Rambling Novel is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. If you find someone who has loved GWTW, this person has probably also read and loved Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, or will once s/he has tried them. It’s a bit of a stretch, but readers of this type might also like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, or Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy. I might go so far as to put Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier in this class, and if I stretch really really hard I could say Beauty by Sheri Tepper might satisfy as well, though the history element isn’t there unless you count fairy tale history. If I can discount history and reality entirely, I would say that Bujold’s Vorkosigan series fits this feel, as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (which should be one book, and should never have had any sequels – but that’s just my opinion, by all means read them all if you have the time, but I already did and if you trust me, I can save you the trouble – don’t bother).

I just realized that the majority of the previously mentioned books (the Sci Fi excepted) have female protagonists, but there are male analogues such as Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure, and some Dickens – Great Expectations pops to mind. The main thing all of these novels have in common is the bond the reader forms with the protagonist and the world he or she lives in. The story may not be totally believable, the character might not be quite likeable, but once you put the book down, you miss that character, and his or her family and friends, and the world s/he lives in. Based on that criteria, I’d say John Irving’s novels qualify as well. (A Widow for One Year if you are female, many of the others if you are male. But you can probably skip Setting Free the Bears or The Water Method Man, trust me. You’re welcome.)

As I write this, I realize another thing that most of these protagonists have in common – each is absolutely, positively determined to get what he or she wants, collateral damage be damned. As Rhett says to Scarlett, “You say if you had it all to do over again, you’d do it differently. But would you? Think, now. Would you?…You are in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red-handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” Amber from Forever Amber isn’t any less selfish, and if you look at his actions objectively, Pip from Great Expectations is a totally self-centered opportunist jerk. And don’t get me started on Edmond Dantes, the dude kills people. I’m now kind of worried what this says about me that I love these fictional narcissists so much. But it’s hard not to love a character who works so hard toward something, even if they fail and mow down everyone around them in the process.

Others in a similar vein:
Iola Fuller – The Loon Feather
Madeleine L’Engle – The Small Rain and its sequel, A Severed Wasp
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy

Can you add some Long Rambling Novels to my list? Please, have at it in the comments. I always need new ones.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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I have wanted to write this blog entry since I finished chapter 1, but I made myself wait until I was finished to be sure the book didn’t go off the rails somewhere before the end. It didn’t, so I can now recommend it without reservations.

The book is told by several characters in turn. We start with Nao Yasutani, a teenage girl in Tokyo who is writing in her diary. She was raised in California, but when the dot-com bubble burst her family returned to their native Japan. Nao is miserable there. She is a transfer student at a less-than-stellar public school because her Japanese skills are poor and her family has no money for tutors, and she is mercilessly bullied by her classmates. Her father is depressed because of his failure in America, and he has tried (and failed) to commit suicide. Nao fears he will eventually succeed. Nao herself wants to commit suicide, but she decides that it is important to first tell the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, before she ends it all.

Enter Ruth, a novelist, walking on the shore of her remote island in western Canada. She finds Nao’s diary and some other artifacts in a barnacle-covered freezer bag, and begins to read. Despite the fact that she SHOULD be working on her memoir, Ruth becomes obsessed with figuring out whether Nao is still alive, and what happened to her and her family. The package she found is full of clues – letters in Japanese from Nao’s uncle to her great-grandmother, her uncle’s secret diary and his Sky Soldier watch from World War II. Throughout the story, Ruth tries to find any reference to determine whether the Yasutanis survived their suicidal plans or the tsunami that may have washed away the package containing the diary in the first place – but every time she finds a clue online, it is later blocked, unavailable or can no longer be found. Ruth begins to fear for her sanity and her memory (her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and she dreads getting it too) as she loses track of time and can’t find clues that she knows were there the last time she looked.

Other parts of the story are told through Nao’s uncle’s letters and diary, and Ruth’s correspondence with a psychology professor who was friends with Nao’s father in California.

This book is worth reading for the magical, fleeting moments that join all of the characters and intertwine their lives, even though they never meet physically. The fantastical elements of the story – a displaced Japanese crow that links Ruth with Nao’s father, the dreams where Ruth visits Nao’s family members and delivers messages and artifacts, the visits Nao receives from her dead uncle’s ghost – all of these things are woven so subtly into the story that they seem completely plausible once you are immersed and grow to love the characters. The idea that Ruth’s husband Oliver proposes near the end – that the ending of Nao’s story depends on Ruth reading it – is tied in with his and Ruth’s musings on the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat, and when Oliver suggests that Nao is both alive and dead, depending on whether or not and when she is observed, I thought this sounded perfectly sensible.

This is the kind of book I love – one that leads you down a fanciful path that your rational mind knows isn’t real, but seems completely logical while you are on it. In that sense, this book reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison’s books, where characters suddenly fly or transform or return from the dead and you KNOW it isn’t possible, but it fits the story, so who can challenge it? Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate also comes to mind as a possible read-alike, in spirit if not in style.

Another thing I especially liked was all of the philosophies and scientific theories that were presented in this book in a very accessible way. They were usually presented by Oliver explaining them to Ruth, or Jiko (the great grandmother) explaining them to Nao. Because Ruth is a novelist and Nao is a teenager, and neither has studied much philosophy or physics, Oliver and Jiko have to present them in a way that is easy to understand, and this made them easy for me as well.

Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

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I thought that I should start this recommendation with a confession: I think I am in love with Mary Roach. Never mind that we have never met, are both happily married to men, and probably have incompatible pets – I just know, deep down, that we are soul mates. I know this because I just read two of her books, and have 2 more on hold. I can’t stop.

I put Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers on hold years ago when it came out, but somehow, despite the fact that it sounded fascinating, it wound up being due back at the library before I had started it. What with one book and another getting in the way, I’ve been meaning to read it (and several of her books since), but until I received my audio copy of Gulp a few weeks ago, I hadn’t gotten to her. Now I can only say: I know what I have been missing, and I am so happy that I let her get ahead a few books so I have plenty to read for the next few months.

Now that that background fluff is out of the way, we can get on to the reasons you want to read this book. Gulp is a fascinating tour of the human digestive system. It begins with the teeth, tongue, and salivary glands, then takes you down the esophagus to the stomach, through the small intestine to the colon, then on to…well, the end, explaining what function each part performs. Throughout the book she tells the reader not only what scientists know about digestion so far, but what they still want to know and are trying to find out, and describes some of the truly bizarre ways our knowledge has increased over the years. Oh, and most importantly for Elvis fans, she tells you all about Elvis’s megacolon. Yes, you read that right. The King died on the commode for a reason.

I liked this book so much that I put Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers on hold once again, and am currently finishing listening to Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void in the car. So far Packing For Mars is living up to my inflated Mary Roach hyperbole that follows.

The thing that makes Mary Roach’s books worth reading is her storytelling style. Imagine you know someone who is so insatiably curious about everything that she devotes her life to hunting down experts on her pet subjects and asking them uncomfortable and embarrassing questions that you wouldn’t dare to ask. She puts herself in the weirdest situations to fully understand her subject, and what makes her interviewees tick. (In Gulp, she eats narwhal, reaches into the stomach of a cow, and has a colonoscopy stone-cold sober so she can see her colon. In Packing For Mars, she takes a zero gravity flight and drinks her own filtered urine.) Then, after she has learned every obscure (and often disgusting) detail about a subject, she distills just the interesting parts for you while interjecting hilarious stories about these experiences and interviews. I swear, her footnotes are the best part of her books. Go read one of her books. Now. Or better yet, listen to it – the reader of Gulp is just the right degree of snarky.

Read-Alikes? The closest authors I can pick are Henry Alford and maybe Simon Winchester, though Alford is higher in snark and less research-obsessed, while Winchester goes the other way. If it turns out that you like Roach’s books, try watching her TED talk – she is a nervous speaker, but still very interesting. (Warning: Probably NSFW.)

lifeafterlife

I have formed the theory that there are 3 types of Kate Atkinson fans – those who liked Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird but hate the Jackson Brodie books, those who love Jackson Brodie but think Atkinson’s other books are “too weird”, and those who love anything she writes and would probably pay for a hardback first edition of her grocery lists. Take the following review with a grain of salt, reader, because I am the latter type.

Life After Life is possibly my new favorite “weird” Kate Atkinson novel. (The jury in my brain is still out. It’s hard to top Human Croquet for Best Weird Novel. I’ll have to re-read it to be sure.) The premise of the book is – well, so I don’t have to say weird again, let’s say odd. The protagonist, Ursula, is born and dies again and again in the novel, and each time her life varies in length and quality as a result of either random chance or some decision she makes along the way. At certain points, Ursula seems to be presciently figuring out ways to prevent previous disasters – from stopping a neighbor who was murdered in a previous life from walking home with the murderer in a later one, to avoiding marrying a man who turns out to be an abuser in one pitiful previous life, to attempting to assassinate Hitler before World War II gets out of hand. She never seems to know why or how she knows she absolutely must take action, but she knows she must, and does. Usually, when she allows others or society to dictate her actions, her lives are brutish and short, but when she takes the bull by the horns, she tends to live longer and be happier.

You might like this book if you like historical fiction (WWII), stories about women who overcome oppression, stories that challenge social conventions, or stories that you have to piece together from various vignettes. In the end, it is impossible to piece together a coherent timeline of Ursula’s life, but you gain such a clear picture of her basic character and the time(s) she lived in that it doesn’t matter.

I can’t really come up with a true read-alike for this book. Others have compared the book (some not kindly) to the movie Groundhog Day, which seems accurate enough to me to not take it personally. Like Bill Murray’s character, Ursula is forced to do things over and over, each time hoping for a better outcome. I guess the most similar book I can think of is Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride – the time period is too late, but the sensation of not ever knowing who the character is or what she really has and hasn’t done is similar.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

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The book tells the story of the author, Wes Moore, and another man with the same name who grew up around the same time in the same area. The two men had eerily similar early lives: both were raised by single mothers in and around Baltimore, both had early childhood brushes with the law, and both struggled in school. Somehow, Wes Moore the author became a Rhodes Scholar, the other Wes Moore got sent to prison for life in 2004. When the author first heard about the “other” Wes Moore, he became so fascinated that he wrote him a letter, and their subsequent exchanges became this book.

I thought when I started the book that it would be easy to figure out where the other Wes Moore went wrong, and where the author Wes Moore chose correctly – but it is actually very difficult to determine. Both of them worked to improve their lives through what educational opportunities they could find, but what worked for Wes Moore the author failed the other Wes Moore miserably. If we can trust the author and assume he isn’t being self-deprecating, he often got lazy and squandered the opportunities he had, while the other Wes Moore seemed to try harder and more consistently when given a chance. Why did he fail? Was it the difference between going to military school and going to vocational school? Was it the difference between their mothers and extended families? Was the other Wes Moore more desperate because he had children to support, and therefore more likely to resort to crime? We can speculate, but we’ll never know.

I would recommend this book to anyone who liked the HBO series The Wire, because it’s like a nonfiction version. (I found myself picturing characters as their TV analogues.) It’s also great for book clubs – mine discussed it to death. If it has a fiction read-alike, I would pick Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. The time period is all wrong, but the story of a young man trying to make it in a world set up against him is reminiscent.