Sunday, February 24, 2013

If You Were Here Review

If You Were Here - Jen Lancaster


So I'm getting behind on reviews and I didn't really like this book, so I'm not going to spend too much time on it.

Jen Mia and her husband buy an expensive money pit in the Chicago burbs because the movie Sixteen Candles was filmed there and also they are idiots. Because they lack common sense, they further exacerbate their living situation in a dilapidated house by doing stupid things like dropping toilets through the floor (not once, but twice) and chopping down a tree because of an annoying woodpecker. Also the neighbors are crazy yuppies who complain about her ugly, expensive mailbox and other stupid things.

Okay, it's supposed to be a comedy--that's why I picked it up. I was hoping for something along the lines of The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days to help me de-stress. I can make allowances for mediocre writing and I can make allowances for ridiculousness, if it makes me laugh. Because at the end of the day, all I want to do is laugh.

This book did not make me laugh.

All right, I may have chuckled here or there, but the laughter-to-terrible-writing ratio was way off. For one thing, Lancaster relies on a lot of pop culture references that I did not understand because I was born in the 90s. Okay, I suppose that's not entirely her fault because there is such a thing as DVDs and at any point in my twenty-some years on this planet I could have rented and watched Sixteen Candles. But I didn't, so it's a moot point. Also, she kept peppering in these footnotes which I guess is a sort of a trademark from her memoir books, but to be honest I found them mostly pointless. Half of them would flow better as parentheticlas or even with commas, and the other half really didn't need to be there.

With comedies we generally tend to suspend our disbelief because we know it's not supposed to be necessarily realistic; it's about exaggerations or being silly.The thing is, I feel like if you're going to go all-out ridiculous, it has to be, well, all-out. Otherwise, it has to remain within some realm of possibility. This book seemed to be stuck in between--it felt too unrealistic to enjoy, but not unrealistic enough to sort of kick back and forget about real life. And even if your story is going to be completely absurd, the pacing still has to follow some sort of consistency. This book proved to be yet another example of the quick-fix-I'm-out-of-time-let's-just-slap-something-stupid-together ending.

From some of the other reviews I've read, apparently Lancaster does a poor job of disguising the main character, Mia, as someone other than herself--the same follows for her husband and friends. Which makes me think that Lancaster isn't capable of creating original characters. To be fair, not having read any of Lancaster's memoirs, I can't say for sure. However, I've skimmed the first couple pages of a few of them and so far it all adds up. Also, I will not be reading any more of her books because she comes off rather very egotistical and kind of bratty. I can tolerate Mia because she's a (supposedly) fictional character, but as a real person...not so much.

1.5/5 Fancies

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Review

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan


Hey, you guys, this book, it totally glows in the dark. Scared the ever-loving crap out of me when I went to bed with it on my nightstand. It's a good thing it's not a scary book, otherwise it would have gone straight out the window and I'd have slept with the lights on for a month. Also, they've really improved on glow-in-the-dark technology since I was a child. Anywho, that's probably one of the most redeeming features of this book, so let's get into it, shall we?

Clay Jannon is an art school grad which means he's underemployed. After the new bagel company he worked for, so aptly named NewBagel, went under, he finds the only job he can as the overnight clerk at a mysterious 24-bookstore. The bookstore's regulars seem to consist of a few strange people who arrive at all hours, urgently demanding volumes from the tall shelves in the back that appear to be written in some kind of code.

Okay, so this book wasn't terrible, but there were definitely a few things that I take issue with. For one thing everything felt just so very, very contrived. Every event that happened is so perfectly convenient and it felt like there were hardly any real problems at all. The plot seemed lacking in that you've got this secret society and an ages-old code...and yet nothing's really at stake. The most intimidating thing the "antagonist" (for lack of a better word) seems capable of is a menacing phone call from three thousand miles away, and the cost of failure is...ennui. And while it doesn't seem possible that this story could get any more set-up, the ending make little sense, happens way too conveniently, isn't really explained, and happens so fast--like Sloan was running out of time and had to slap something really quick together.

The whole book felt like it was trying to be whimsical, and looking at the plot summary definitely seems like it could have been--that's why I picked it up. But the writing is very bare-bones "I did this. Then this happened. We looked over there." There's nothing clever about the prose or the story (because if it ain't got wit, it ain't got whimsy). Everything all just comes down to technology and ooo! This gizmo is capable of this! Problem solved! Hooray!  And the whole thing about a company that specializes in the animation of boobs? I seemed like it was supposed to come off quirky and cute, but really, that's just creepy.

It's supposed to be an adult book, but the writing level and the plot complexity pegs it at a much more juvenile level. Although, to say that would even be an insult to juvenile literature because A Wrinkle in Time is also  juv lit and it's brilliant. 

This was supposed to be my break from all the depressing books I've been reading this year so far, but I'd prefer sad and well-written to this. 

Actually, now that I've written all that out, this book was kind of terrible.

2/5 Fancies.

Read Instead: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Causal Vacancy Review

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling


So, as with every Harry Potter fan, I approached this book with some hesitancy because it's been made very clear that This Book Is Not Harry Potter and I didn't want to read it for the sole reason that Queen Jo wrote it. But eventually, the story line piqued my interest and so I tacked my name onto the miles-long waiting list at the library. Had this book come out five years ago, I may have skipped it entirely, but my tastes have evolved and I've become more open to a variety of books.

All right, so Barry Fairbrother dies. On page 5. As a member of the Parish Council of the small town of Pagford, this leaves a vacancy, a casual vacancy as the term goes, on the council. While he was still alive, Barry was very much a proponent of the keeping the low-income housing neighborhood, the Fields, a part of Pagford. With his death, his opponents are now swooping in to try to have their wants filled. His death indirectly causes a crucible of latent anger between friends, families, and neighbors, to boil over.

Okay, so it sounds a bit like Harry Potter and a Very Large Book About Muggles in which Harry Potter Does Not Appear or Privet Drive, the 3/4s of the Year Harry Potter is Not There.  But really, this book needs to be viewed apart from Harry Potter because, once again This Book Is Not Harry Potter. So I'm going to stop making Harry Potter references now. Also because this is much more apt analogy:

When you play the game of council chairs, you win...or you go home and make a pot of tea and cry.

Because like Game of Thrones, this book is all about people and power--not just political power, but power over their families, or their friends, or their enemies. And it's about all the backhanded schemes people have to undermine their parents, or their spouses, or their coworkers, or their friends. Rowling also takes us through various points of views so we see the motivations behind each persons actions and how those actions are misinterpreted by others. We also get to see multiple sides of an issues and multiple sides to each character. I often found myself thinking one thing about a character, and then revising that opinion when the POV switched to them or someone else. Despite the constant view-swapping, I didn't find it at all confusing. Though I did, at first, have some trouble remember who was who and was related to whom at the very beginning because she throws so many names at you. And thing is, when you've got characters named Dumbledore, or Hagrid, you tend to remember them (or the gist of them) because they're so unique. But when I'm reading about Howard or Ruth for the first time, I immediately forget those names because they're so...regular (the same thing happens when I meet new people...just in one ear and out the other).

Another thing that Rowling's really good at is planting innocuous little plot seeds throughout the story and then coming back to them much later after you've forgotten all about them because no WAY was that little detail going to actually become something important...until it does. And I will mention Harry here because that's one of the things I really liked about reading Harry Potter more than once--catching all those little hints you missed the first time. She's just brilliant at planning ahead.

She's also just brilliant at writing. While Harry Potter (I know, I know--I swear this is the last time I'll mention it!) is written for younger audiences, it's written at a level that in no way feels dumbed-down or half-assed. As Casual Vacancy is for adults, she's able to go full literary steam ahead.

So, if you're planning on reading it just because Queen Jo wrote it, remember, This Book Is Not Harry Potter. There's drug addicts, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, cursing, cutting, sex, ...pretty much everything except magic. And while it may seem like she's piling this stuff on just to say This Book Is Not Harry Potter, it does all fit within the story. If you've never been a Harry Potter fan, don't shy away from it just because it's Rowling. I know this book's already gotten a fair share of lukewarm reviews, but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps my standards were already lowered because of said reviews, but it's still really, really good. While it started slow, it ended up becoming one of those books where I put it down and two minutes later I'm thinking about it again.

Anyway, the ending is truly one of the bitter sweet variety that is devastatingly sad, but also kind of hopeful, and it just turns you into one big ball of emotions (okay, so the fact that I've been listening to the Les Mis soundtrack in the car may have contributed too). 

4 Fancies plus a half because I'm still so damn emotional about it. 4.5/5

Read A-Likes: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Lace Reader Review

The Lace Reader - Brunonia Barry



I started this book because I overheard my boss and another librarian talking about how much they hated it and that it's about crazy people. Now, you know I love books about crazy people. I also tend to love books my boss hates (and vice versa), so it seemed like a good pick.

Towner Whitney is a chronic liar, or so the first line would have us believe (which creates all kinds of conundrums along the lines of "this statement is false"). Anyway, she also comes from a long line of crazy people lace readers--women who have the psychic ability to read the future through pieces of lace. After hearing news that her grandmother is missing, she returns home to Salem (yes, that Salem), only for granny's (dead) body to be discovered the next day. There's a lot of flash backs about her twin sister, who was raised as her cousin because Towner's mother gave Towner's twin to her sister when she couldn't conceive, and also about her (Towner's) twin's eventual suicide. There's also a cult of neo-Puritans that was started by Towner's wife-beating, child-abusing, uncle Cal (don't you love him already?), and a missing pregnant teen, last seen joining said cult. So the story's present Plot is about this missing girl and how they're pretty sure Cal killed her, but have no actual proof. There's also the story's past Plot, which is Towner's history and relationship with her grandmother, mother, and mostly her sister.

In general, it was pretty interesting. I was definitely hooked by at least two things: 1) finding out what happened to the missing prego teen and 2) seeing Cal get his comeuppance because I hated him so much (spoiler: he does). And then came the MASSIVE TWEEST at the end, which I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I do love a good psychological twist. The problem is that when you do have a twist that overhauls the entire story, YOU GOT SOME 'SPLAININ' TO DO and I don't think Barry did enough 'splainin'. While the ending did make sense within the realm of the book, there wasn't enough story left after the big reveal to tie up all the pre-twist plot threads with the post-twist plot threads.

But it is a good book--or at least I enjoyed it, but, as I mentioned above, not everyone does. I'd say it's worth a read, at least so I can discuss the ending with you!

 Anyway, enjoyable, but not terribly memorable.  3/5 Fancies.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cranes Dance Review

The Cranes Dance - Meg Howrey



Two things you should know about me are 1) I love ballet and 2) I love stories about crazy people. So when I find a book about ballet and crazy people, it's about the biggest jackpot since Black Swan came out.

Because ballet-bird allusions will never grow old, Kate Crane is a soloist at a prestigious unnamed New York City ballet company. Prior to the story, Kate's younger, more talented sister, Gwen, a principal dancer in the same company, goes back home to mom and dad after a nervous breakdown. Kate is wracked with guilt for failing to do more to help her sister earlier on. Because when your sister starts doing things like throwing chairs at mirrors, taping "X"s all over the apartment, having a full-blown panic attack at the sight of a mouse, and claiming her spotless apartment is too dirty for her to physically enter, little reds flags should be popping up signalling something is rotten in the state of Gwen. Kate eventually calls home and has her dad pick her sister up. So the story begins with Kate alone in NYC with nothing but her dancing and her guilty thoughts.

And that's about it really in terms of plot. It's a character-centric story so a majority of the action is very slice-of-life of a dancer in a company. Meanwhile we are also treated to a number of flashbacks of the events leading up to her sister's break. As such, the book moves sort of slow as there is no huge driving force behind it, aside from Kate's now deteriorating mental state (due, in part to a recent addiction to Vicodin). But it's a much more subtle descent than, say, I'M THE SWAN QUEEN! While it's not dark like Black Swan, there is a level of bleakness as Kate also falls into a existential crisis and there's an amount of "WHAT'S THE POINT?"

Aside from the slowness of the story, it's written well enough. The book is narrated by Kate to her "unseen audience" (AKA us), which I at first found kind of meh, because I don't really like it when narrators address the reader. It turns out, however, that Kate often images she is being observed by an unseen audience in order to force herself to retain her poise at all times, so it kind of fits. A lot of personality comes through Kate's narration, which is good in terms of character development, but also not good if you don't like her personality. I, personally, liked her--or rather, I liked reading about her. The book also begins with Kate giving you a snide overview of Swan Lake, which her company is currently performing. At first, I was like "not again", because every ballet story seems to reference Swan Lake and you'd think that's the only thing ballet companies ever did, and besides I know Swan Lake backwards and forwards (though admittedly, not everyone else reading this book does). But I found myself giggling throughout the description anyway because she also talks about the "peasant-dancing hoo-ha" and the awkwardness of ballet-mime to those who don't know ballet-mime. The company thankfully moves on to other productions soon enough, and the main(ish) ballet of the book ends up being A Midsummer Night's Dream.

If you're like me, and you've gone through every ballet documentary on Netflix and watch Dance Academy because you're secretly living vicariously through those crazy Aussie teens, then you will probably enjoy this book--at least on the level that it's a fairly detailed look into company life. I mean, the author herself used to be a professional dancer, so I'm pretty sure she would know.

If you're not so much into ballet, then the book might not grip you enough to keep reading up to the end, where it does pick up quite a bit, but, like I said, that's at the end.

3.5/5 Fancies.