The Likeness by Tana French (Book Review)

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)The Likeness by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m going to talk my way through deciding where this book leaves me, how many stars to hand out.

The premise is excellent, with smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. Twist one: A young woman who has assumed the false identity created by a former undercover cop is murdered. Twist two: The two women are doppelgängers. So, police pretend the victim survived and recovers, the cop resumes the identity and goes back undercover to solve the case. What’s not to love?

One thing for me not to love was the pacing. It starts out with a bang, then moves at a glacial pace as Detective Cassie Maddox resumes her former undercover identity to return “home” to a houseful of Ph.D.-candidate roommates, one of whom may have tried to kill “her.” The setup is necessary, I suppose, but it drags, with an awful lot of wordy atmospheric stage-setting. It’s lovely writing, but so much of it feels like it’s padding.

The other thing not to love was the entire group of housemates. Five doctoral-level grad students who are always together, evidently with identical course schedules, always going to and from college together, always sitting down for meals together, doing each other’s laundry and spending evenings in the same room together, draping their legs over each other’s laps and finishing each other’s sentences and eating from each other’s plates. Maybe it makes me a terrible friend, but keep your fingers out of my food and your feet out of my face, mmmkay? But more than that, beyond close friendship or snooty insularity or even blurred boundaries, there is an undertone of perverse not-quite-sexuality to it that made me feel I was in danger of being sucked into a cult. Was it supposed to be that way? This group of people gave me some serious creeps, better than a chain-rattling ghost or a maniac with a machete ever could. If that was intentional then more kudos to French and to our fictional detective as well, for being able to sleep under the same roof with them. If I met that bunch in real life, I’d bolt.

At first blush it seems a little fantastic that four people who had intimately known the dead woman could be completely fooled by an undercover who hadn’t known her at all, but on the other hand, we are quite good at convincing ourselves we are seeing what we expect to see. So I was fine with that aspect of it, and it wasn’t until I hit 75% that I really had to suspend my disbelief to absorb the crisis point, the hook for the ending. I let myself be hooked because the pace was finally picking up; it had taken me a week to read the first three-quarters, but I read the last quarter in an afternoon. This is not a tied-up-with-a-pretty-bow ending; there is a vagueness to it that I appreciate. Life is not tidy. After everything’s over, there’s always something left to wonder about.

Note that some other reviewers didn’t mind the pacing and/or hated the ending, so your mileage may vary. The plotting is stellar. I enjoy the psych-thriller aspect as much as I enjoy the mystery/police procedural. French skillfully writes an almost mystic connection between the undercover and the dead woman, with a feeling that they had somehow summoned each other. Her prose is lovely, and she rocks at distilling impressions into words. I liked In the Woods better, but I remain a fan; I’ve already reserved Faithful Place at my library. All three books are from the POV’s of three different yet connected characters; I’m looking forward to Frank Mackey’s POV.

This would be a four-star read but for the pacing, so the verdict is three stars, which is just fine.

Bookshelves: crime, whodunit, detective, mystery, ireland, psych-thriller, police-procedural, heebie-jeebies

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The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (Book Review)

The Winds of War (The Henry Family, #1)The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Winds of War is the first half of Herman Wouk’s WWII epic. And I do mean epic. I first read this many, many years ago, when I was in high school, and it stayed with me. Some notes on this reread:

1. I hadn’t remembered how unrealistic the dialogue is in this book.

“Dearest, are you hurt?”

“No. Not at all. It went right on through.”

“Thank God! Thank God!”

I mean, cheesy. And stiff and formal, with rather complex sentence structure for conversation. People don’t really talk the way characters do in this book. The only real person I’ve ever heard use “whom” consistently and correctly in everyday conversation was my teacher-and- grammar-freak (and much beloved) grandmother. It was part of what made her her, but on anyone else it sounds incongruous.

2. Throughout the book our protagonist is constantly referred to as Victor Henry. “Aye aye, sir,” said Victor Henry. Or, Victor Henry was answering Mrs. Roosevelt’s questions about Nazi Germany. At page 578 of an 885-page kitten-squisher, I don’t need his full name all the time.

3. Horrific head-hopping. Instead of multiple POV’s we have the omniscient narrator, who unfortunately will tell us what two different characters are thinking or feeling in the same paragraph. I kept going, Huh? and having to reread.

4. The biggie is how contrived the story is. The main protagonist is always perfectly positioned, so that he meets Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, and advises FDR about all of them and more, because this guy is just everywhere, always at the historic moment. He is invited to join the crew of an RAF bomber on a raid on Berlin; he’s holing up at the American embassy during the Battle of Moscow, with a side trip to the Russian front so he can get strafed by the Wehrmacht (see above dialogue example; the bullet went right through). He’s in London during the Blitz and on Wake Island the day after Pearl Harbor. He doesn’t manage to be in Warsaw when it falls but his son is; his daughter-in-law sees the Japanese attack on Hawaii from a hill near her house, and his other daughter-in-law is a terrified Jew clutching her baby in the Piazza Venezia as Mussolini declares war on the United States.

But these are things that would sink a mediocre story, much like the California. This story is not mediocre, and its sweep is impressive enough to render these annoyances minor. It would be easy to roll my eyes at how conveniently we have first-hand observation of so many major events, personal meetings with so many historical figures, on a grand stage that is pretty much the whole planet. Puts me in mind of Forrest Gump. But when I look at the tale as a history text, with characters made up to tell the story in a connected and very human way, I see Wouk’s storytelling genius. The interweaving of political, military, and cultural details is stellar. The soap-opera-ish illicit romances and bed-hopping add another element of humanity.

This is an engrossing read and I recommend it, but it’s also a marathon. It took me 10 days that felt like a month. Even though it just kind of stops and hangs there at the end, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I’m going to have to take a break before tackling the other half of the story, War and Remembrance.

Bookshelves: epic, world-war-ii, five-stars-means-i’ll-read-it-again, love-the-cover, americana, historical-fiction, bad-dialogue, head-hopping, so-bad-it’s-good

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Book Review)

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“She probably gives him organic blow jobs” was my favorite line in the whole book. There. That either made you want to devour (ahem) the book immediately or give it a wide berth, but either way that’s pretty effective book reviewing, if I say so myself.

Bookshelves: chick-lit, current-social-issues, humor, women, mystery, poking-fun-at-serious-stuff, popular-fiction, multiple-povs

I was totally not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did, considering my surprise that I even read it. Even the cover looks frothy. But I could not put it down.

There were a few nice surprises in this surprisingly deep bit of chick lit. First is how well Moriarty pulls off the range of issues she takes on, with both insight and humor. My favorites were the Blond Bobs, those sanctimonious, soccer-mom-ish bitches who clique around with their fingers in everything, only deigning to acknowledge you to bestow a you’re-a-bad-mother look when they see your child eating a processed cheese stick. The major issues (besides murder) include bullying and domestic violence, with realistic peeks inside the marriages and what’s going on in the the heads occupying those marriages; minor things include mommy wars and pretentiousness and taking motherhood so goddamn seriously in the first place. I mean, my generation turned out (mostly) fine without every last minute of our lives being scheduled and a parent hovering around every last thing we did. My generation, you know. We played with dirt, and we were happy, to quote Walter. We didn’t have “playdates.” We said, “Mom, can I go play with Carla?” and Mom said yes, so we ran across the street and knocked on Carla’s door and asked Mrs. Smith if Carla could play, and Mrs. Smith said yes, and then we played. Spontaneous, imaginative, not having every social encounter themed and choreographed and made into a competition. Maybe we spread Barbie dolls out on the lawn. Maybe we went to Paula’s house and watched the TV shows our own mothers considered unwholesome. (In 1967. Tell me what was so poisonous on television in 1967.) Maybe we took turns “skiing” in the middle of the street, one of us blistering at top speed on a bike, the other being towed on roller skates by holding on to the sissy bar, without helmets, and the neighbors didn’t care because that’s what a residential suburban neighborhood was all about, and if you don’t want to be careful of kids playing in the street, go buy a condominium somewhere. Nobody freaked out, even after we’d wiped out and blood was flowing (my knee; I still have the scar). And when we got caught playing I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours, people didn’t lose their blooming minds and scream “sexual abuse” and call the police and lawyer up and try to ruin some curious child’s life. We were kids, and we were allowed to be kids.

Huh. Apparently there was a rant in there.

Back to the book.

The other fun surprise was the sort-of-backward way the murder mystery was handled. The suspense is largely created by not finding out who the murder victim even is until right before the denouement. You know somebody’s going to get it, but not who. So you keep turning the pages as events unfold and injustices build, thinking s it this hoity-toity holier-than-thou bitch, maybe strangled with her own ponytail after getting caught boffing somebody else’s husband? or Is it this asshole, thinks he’s King of the Hill, look how he done her wrong! With every new development, there’s a new potential victim, a new potential killer.

Loved it.

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He, She and It by Marge Piercy (Book Review)

He, She and ItHe, She and It by Marge Piercy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, I was all set to really, really love this book. Cyberpunk, dystopia, feminist sci-fi…what’s not to love?

Bookshelves: cyberpunk, dnf, my-dystopia-utopia, mysticism, sci-fi, feminism, futuristic, abandoned

Really, I should have known better, after seeing comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I first read as my book club’s pick when my son was a newborn. What little sleep the mother of a newborn does get, I sacrificed on the altar of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it remains one of my all-time favorite reads, one I’ve returned to several times. That built me up to expect too much from He, She and It. You’d think I’d learn.

It’s not that He, She and It is bad. It’s not. The premise is excellent, the creation of an illegal golem (or cyborg, whatever) in the “free” town of Tikva – “free” meaning it is independent of the dozen or so corporations that now rule our ravaged planet, and doesn’t that sound ominous, given the current political and economic world scheme. The dystopia is well-drawn. The internal monologues are thoughtful and finely written, with the primary theme being humanity – what is or is not considered human, alive, in possession of a soul, free will, the right to choose. The focus on Jewish culture, Kabbalism, and the intervals with the 16th-century Golem of Prague add the right touch of mysticism.

Even with all that going for it the story remained uncompelling, and I blame the pacing, which is positively glacial. The story just plods along, interspersed with lots of exposition, and in spite of love triangles and jealousy and cyborg sex, corporate manipulation and cyber assassinations and espionage, there is not much tension. If I’d been, say, on an 18-hour flight with only this book then I’d have not minded finishing it, but I was comfortably at home with a score of other books vying for my attention. I peeked ahead to see how it all works out, and unfortunately I don’t feel I missed anything by not knowing what happened between where I left off and the ending.

Marge Piercy’s writing style is similar to Margaret Atwood’s, and I love Margaret Atwood. Perhaps I’ll try another of Piercy’s works, but this one didn’t do it for me.

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Jonesing for a Good Fantasy (Twofer Book Review)

All I want is a good fantasy read. Is that so much to ask?

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Le Guin has long been a favorite of fantasy devotees, so it was time I tried her out.

I found myself constantly putting this book down in favor of doing almost anything else, including cleaning off my writing table. When I choose to clean instead of reading my book, things are not going well.

The worldbuilding is spectacular and the writing is competent, but the style is distant. There is much telling, little showing, and I feel no connection with the characters or what is happening to them. This may be a sign of the times; the book was first published in 1968, after all, and it may be that I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it back in the day. But since nobody ever gives me a prize for finishing a book no matter what, I dnf’d at 32%. I feel a little guilty, too.

Bookshelves: dnf, fantasy, magic

Then I remembered The Sword of Shannara, that I read when I was 18 or 19 maybe, and loved. And if there’s anything better than the instant gratification afforded by downloadable books, it’s the free instant gratification afforded by downloadable books from my library.

The Sword of Shannara (The Original Shannara Trilogy, #1)The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

 

Oh my. You’d think I would have seen it when I read it the first time, what a nearly complete ripoff it is of Lord of the Rings, which was single-handedly responsible for my demerits and poor grades in junior high and high school math, because I would hide the LOTR volumes inside my math text and plan my wedding to Aragorn instead of paying attention to hypotenuses (hypotenusi?). I was only slightly older, 18 or so, when I first read SOS. Even then I was still writing stupid poetry about knights in shining armor, with Aragorn firmly in mind. I admit it.

So. The Sword of Shannara.

The mysterious wizard druid Gandalf Allanon approaches our hero, Frodo Baggins Shea Ohmsford (a simple and honest hobbit elf-halfbreed from a simple and honest town with simple and honest values), because he is the only one who can use the one ring sword of power to save Middle Earth the world. The ring sword was forged by a rogue wizard druid, the Dark Lord Sauron Warlock Lord Brona, who is returning from a long vacation to stir things shit up again, and the ring sword is the only thing that can destroy him. Accompanied only by his faithful gardener adoptive brother Sam Flick and a bag of apples and cheese,* Frodo Shea flees The Shire Shady Vale, seconds ahead of the once-human minions of evil known as Ringwraiths Skull Bearers. They reach the town of Bree Leah and the ranger local lord Aragorn Menion Leah, who guides them on their way. At Weathertop the Mist Marsh the company is attacked by a Ringwraith Mist Wraith, and rescued by the elf faerie Arwen Evenstar King of the Silver River. They R&R at the idyllic elven dwarvish stronghold of Rivendell Culhaven, where a Very Important Council is held. After it is settled that Frodo Shea is their only hope, each race volunteers a member to have his back, and the fellowship company swells to include the dwarf Gimli Hendel, the elf Legolas elven brothers Durin and Drayel, and the human prince Boramir of Gondor Balinor of Callahorn…

Derivative doesn’t begin to describe it.

And I know that tropes are tropes are tropes. Since George MacDonald and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, very little is new in fantasy literature. The dark lord, the intricate worldbuilding, the quest, the simple farmboy hero, the magic thingamajig,** the prophecy, the elves and dwarves and gnomes and trolls and dragons and wise old wizard/mage/druid/sorcerer, and so on. Tropes are tropes because they work. All genres have them. It’s easy for me to sneer at romance tropes because I sneer at romance generally***, but detective novels have tropes too, and I know it, and I don’t care because I like detective novels. But with SOS, I find the “of course the author was heavily influenced by Tolkien, everybody is” defense to be a wee bit disingenuous. It reminds me of when I was ten or so, and I showed my mother the book I’d started writing, and she said, “Isn’t that almost exactly, but not completely and totally, like mushing Heidi  and The Secret Garden together?” Yeah, but I was ten.

I could even deal with it, if not for the actual writing. Terry Brooks loves adverbs and adjectives. “He raced swiftly” is redundant. “He trailed off abruptly” is contradictory. Everybody is always doing things suddenly, abruptly, hastily, hurriedly, and so on, but the favorite is “quickly,” sometimes twice in three sentences. My brain is now doing that thing where it compulsively interjects “quickly” into long passages of things that already have the living shit described out of them: “The bright moonlight (quickly) glowed eerily off the rough bark and deep green patches of ragged moss on the hulking, massive trees, (quickly) creating deep black shadows in the thick carpet of prickly needles on the damp, spongy, forest floor and sinuously (quickly) blending into the sticky, grasping mist…” (That is not an actual sentence from the book, but it could be.) So when I’m not mentally hearing “quickly” even where it isn’t, I’m skimming passages of clunky, repetitive description, and when I start skimming, it’s time to accept that this Prince Charming of a book is not doing it for me.

Other folks may like it just fine, and judging by the ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, plenty do.

I already knew my 18-year-old self did not have terribly discerning taste, as evidenced by my dating habits (bad boys who drove muscle cars and always had weed) and my drinking habits (anything), but I’d really really hoped this book would be as good as I remembered it. Alas. Dnf-ing at 19%.

Bookshelves: dnf, fantasy, magic, ugh, was-the-editor-drunk, wannabe

(I am happy to report, though, that I no longer write stupid poetry about knights in shining armor, I have refined my taste in booze, and I now know what a hypotenuse is.****)

Which leaves me still just really wanting a good fantasy read. I became intrigued by Brandon Sanderson when he finished writing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death (as Jordan wished, having left drafts and detailed notes for that purpose). I liked Sanderson’s writing style better than Jordan’s – less formal, less wordy – but he was working with Jordan’s world, Jordan’s characters, Jordan’s story, so I’m finally getting around to seeing what he can do on his own. I got a free download of the first parts of both The Way of Kings and Mistborn.

Wish me luck.

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* I made up the apples and cheese. It might have been bread and sausages.

** Or a doohickey. Could be a doohickey.

***I sneer at romance not because I’m a prude, but because (1) it is so often badly written and (2) it is so often thinly disguised erotica/mommy porn, and I think if you want to read porn, you should just own it and go ahead and read proper porn and not pussy (heh) foot around about it.

**** But I never did marry Aragorn. Arwen Evenstar, that bitch.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Book Review)

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up a used copy of this book for less than a dollar, figuring I’d love it after stumbling across The Invention of Wings. I’m of two minds on this one, this one being a coming-of-age-discovering-the-feminine-divine story in the South, just after the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been signed into law.

What I liked: The writing is poetic. Kidd can turn a phrase, make me smell the honey, feel the thick humidity. The characters are well-developed and I loved them; the plotting and pacing are tight. The story pulled me in and kept me in; I had a hard time putting it down.

What I didn’t like: I have a hard time picturing the scene with Zach and Lily in the truck going down as it did. I daresay a black boy, who has just gotten out of a pickup truck in which he was driving a white girl, and is now standing with a group of other black boys, one of whom has just thrown a broken bottle and drawn a white man’s blood, would certainly not be politely taken off to jail. I daresay he would have had the living shit beat out of him, at least once. The hatred and violence seemed written like a Monet landscape, like watching a violent storm through gauzy curtains. It is skillfully done, and it highlights the sense of peace and safety surrounding the pink Boatwright house, but I’m still not sure that works for me, romanticizing something as ugly as racism and basic human rights. I also didn’t care for the stereotyping. In this book, with few exceptions, white people are bad, black people are good; women are strong and nurturing and wise, men are abusive dickheads.

That’s not to say it’s not worth reading; it definitely is, for the wordsmithing alone. It just shied away from a tied-up-with-a-perfect-bow happy ending, which I appreciated; a good coming-of-age story does not magically lift away the protagonist’s struggles. The voice of the heroine, 14-year-old Lily, is very real, naive but not childish, full of longing and humor. The science and lore of bees are delightful, I loved the Black Madonna, and I really loved how they were intertwined into an earthy spirituality that needs no official church building. Do read it, but be aware you are looking at an ugly part of America’s history through pink-tinted lenses. Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars, so this is rounded up to four.

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Book Review)

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What do the planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a killer’s rampage have in common? Not much, you might think, and you’d be wrong. It’s the realization of ambition. Ginormous ambition.

I chanced across a pristine copy of this book during a lunchtime used-bookstore escape from a depressing and frustrating job that turned out to a giant mistake. The book was not a mistake. In one hand we have the plans and battles of architect Daniel Burnham as he overcomes sequential (and often simultaneous) obstacles including unions, politics, and weather to create the Columbian Exposition – the White City – that helped make Chicago what it is today. In the other hand, being carefully intertwined, is the scheming of the charismatic H.H. Holmes as he scams his way to build his nearby hotel of horrors that included an airtight vault-cum-gas-chamber in his private office and a coffin-esque kiln and quicklime pit in his basement. Each man had the talent and drive to accomplish a dream, but while one used his gifts to unite and create, the other used his to lure and destroy. The juxtaposition is eerie.

So many firsts: the zipper, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, moving walkways, an all-electric kitchen including dishwasher (invented by a woman, incidentally), spray painting – and America’s first documented serial killer.

I enjoy nonfiction because I love finding things out, but I don’t always love actually reading it because of how dry it can be. Larson is a master of narrative nonfiction, mining historical documents and archives and bringing the past to life with interesting detail and often dry humor.

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