Monday, April 27, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (book group)

On Saturday afternoon, I found out that our book group was on Sunday, so I spent all Sunday breezing through the pick of the month: Water for Elephants. It's not a book I would have picked up for my own reading, in spite of so many reviews. I didn't want to read about the abuses of circus life, of which I knew there were many.

I'm happy to report that it wasn't hard to read in one day. It's not a book I'm highly recommending, though I'm certainly not discouraging anyone from reading it either. There are characters you want to sock, characters you want to shake, characters you want to hug--characters you're glad to see get what they had coming to them and characters whose fates are really hard to swallow. If we had any problems with any of the characters, it would be that Marlena fell a little flat; she remained an idealized woman throughout, and even though she was a hard worker and a tough cookie, we would have liked more dimension to her.

The setting was thoroughly researched and well-written, and even if the ending was too far-fetched for me, Gruen's novel deserves its praises.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife is a fast book. Reading it in two days was a breeze.

That said, I'm not sure how I feel about it. Mostly, I thought it was great. Except for one thing: I felt lied to. What should have been a plot twist caused, instead of surprise, a confusing re-evaluation of narrator and character. And in fact, the twist wasn't particularly surprising; I'd suspected it at first but disregarded it because based on the character's thoughts and plans, it didn't make sense.

Isn't there a rule about omniscient narrators? Aren't they supposed to tell it like it is? Omitting details may be one of a writer's suspense-building tools, but completely misrepresenting a character's thoughts, plans or schemes seems like bad form to me. (My husband thinks this has to do with the betrayal theme; I told him omniscient narrators don't get to do that.)

That pretty much deteriorated the rest of the book for me; I felt a little less invested in the characters thereafter (and a little annoyed with their sexual obsessions), and though the plot was intense enough to keep me glued till the end, and the small details were seldom tedious, and overall, the writing was fantastic, I couldn't shake the oily feel of the author's trick--and if it weren't for that, I would be singing its praises hither and yon.

But isn't the Canadian cover (left) lovely?

Thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the review copy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sweet Hearts by Melanie Rae Thon

There's no way out of this story.
It must be told and told.
How can we know ourselves without it?
--Chapter 52

So I signed, My mother is drowning. Agnes did not correct me. She understood: some things happen in present time forever.
--Chapter 31

Melanie Rae Thon is an author I've enjoyed before--I absolutely adored Iona Moon--but her stories and characters are slippery sorts, just out of reach of feeling a bond to them.

In Sweet Hearts the deaf narrator, the renegade children's aunt, induces this sense of a just-missed connection; she is ever hovering at the edge of the story herself, and she keeps her audience firmly at her side, never letting us get too close, even when she seems to address us. Also, we can never be entirely sure if the story she tells us is as she imagines events, or whether she has a sixth-sense (omnipotency, in this case) to make up for her lack of hearing.

At first, it seems as though this is a story about two kids who go on an assault and robbery spree, and about their relationship with their mom and, to a lesser degree, their step-dad. But then the story devolves into a family history of disconnected mothers, and equally into a narrative to the children's mother who won't listen, and so you take her place by default, a surrogate listener.

You might think detachment from the story wouldn't work, but Thon has a terrific sense of words. Her craft is finely honed, her language often memorable, if not outright lyrical. And even though you feel detached, your compassion for every single character is evoked and your need to blame someone is nullified.
When you came home after dark, Mother didn't scold because she never knew you were missing. But I knew. You came to my room, Frances, white blouse torn, legs and arms scraped by brambles. Dried blood pearled along a hundred tiny cuts. And this was the beginning, a glimpse of our future. You had learned the first and most valuable lesson of our new lives together: if you ditched your bike by the road, nobody would notice; if you ran down by the river where the rosehip briars grew thick and tangled, nobody would look for you; if the thorns cut your arms and legs, if the snagged your clothes and ripped, if they scratched your face, you could yell into the night and nobody, nobody would hear you.
--Chapter 20

If you liked Poppy Adams's The Sister or if you enjoy Robin McKinley's writing style, you may want to add Melanie Rae Thon to your list of authors to look up; Thon's style has a similar story-tellingness to it. On the other hand, if you prefer page-turners with hyper-intense plots and have no patience for slower, meticulously crafted stories, skip it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Attention writers:

I'd like to know what would entice you (or has enticed you) to attend writing festivals/conferences, near or far. Here's the situation: I'm on the board of a writing festival. We hope to grow our festival, but we're not sure how to make it more appealing to writers outside our community (or even within our community, since as I figure it, fewer than 2% of the writers in the area attend our spring or fall festivals).

So--What would you be interested in hearing presentations about? What kinds of speakers would you want/expect? What would make a trip to the coast of BC worthwhile? And what would make you turn tail and never revisit the idea of attending?

This is our festival's website, if you want to make specific suggestions. (Please do!)

Rubies in the Orchard by Lynda Resnick with Francis Wilkinson

Sadly, I can't recommend Rubies in the Orchard to readers (unless they're really interested in POM Wonderful, Resnick's personal Camelot company). This book should have been more engaging. Maybe if Resnick had been as emphatic as she tells us she is with her products, she wouldn't have let so much mediocre writing slip by. Or maybe Wilkinson wasn't the right "with" guy for the job--excellent book writing is far different from newspaper or magazine writing.

Throughout the book, I got the feeling Resnick dictated, with little revision between dictation and printing. Resnick creates a sense of talking to a student-reader, which another blog reviewer calls a condescending tone, but I think the tone Resnick strove for is one of assertion; Resnick has a lot of experience and wants you to benefit from her hard-earned wisdom. Of course, if statements like, "Believe me, I know," had been stripped from drafts, some of that perceived condescension might have been mitigated.

Resnick's use of truisms and statistical yet unquantified generalities ("A number of geologists" is referred to on page 173) further undermines her authority. And for someone who declares a high level of eco-awareness, I found it hard to comprehend so many pages wasted on lauding the book, praises most people won't read--poor trees! (Myself, I tend to veer away from books with so much space utilized for curried praise, usually a precursor to my disappointment.)

There are times when the book feels like "a celebration of Me and My accomplishments," learning from"My mistakes"--all so very Mr. Rogers.

And it's not that the book is awful--it's not. It's just that the reader has to work a little too hard to stay interested from point A to point B to point C. Mostly, Resnick seems not to have fully realized what she wanted this book to be--a book about marketing or a marketing memoir.* It would have been better if she had gone with one or the other. Instead, she straddles the two options, which results in a list-style of writing. Clearly she had some parts that would have benefited from a better narrative approach.

I love the cover, and some of the stories she has to tell are interesting. But those may be the best compliments I have for Rubies in the Orchard (which is really too bad, because I eagerly approached this reading).

*And then there are the textbook-style boxes highlighting her key points.

Thanks to Molly Peters at POM Wonderful for sending me this review copy.