28 February 2012

Not Quite a Husband (Sherry Thomas)

I think Sherry Thomas is my favorite.

Not to say a word against Eloisa or Miranda or Gail or Meljean, of course! I heart those ladies with muchness of the heart. But Ms. Thomas's Delicious was one of the highlights of last year's February romanceathon, and after reading Not Quite a Husband, I'm just in awe of her originality and her ability to work the Angst and Misunderstandings without being manipulative.

I love the premise and the principals of NQtH so, so much. Bryony Asquith is a freakin' lady doctor, guys! In 1897! On the northwest frontier of British India! (It's now Pakistan; she's tending Muslim women who can't see male doctors.) Oh, it's delicious. (And yes, she did do her research.) What is an English gentleman's daughter doing so far off the beaten path? Fleeing the memories of her unhappy marriage, annulled three years previously. But her former husband, Leo Marsden (four years younger! and a mathematician! I loves him so moishe) tracks her down after a frantic message from Bryony's sister that their father (whose relationship with Bryony isn't great either) is deathly ill. And the thing is, he doesn't know why their marriage failed. And it broke his heart. And he's still crazy in love with her. Then they get swept up in a local anti-British uprising!

Gosh, I'm being exclamatory. It's just that it's such a great setup, and it's inhabited by such well-drawn, relatable lovers. I was rooting for them from page 1, and as their story developed and their backstory was filled in, I really felt the emotional weight of how they'd hurt each other, the real, human psychological work that they both had to do to repair themselves and their relationship. Leo's got the most amazing lines towards the end, saying "Trust is a choice. I choose to trust your love and your stalwartness. I trust that should there be a day when either the past or the present overwhelms me, you will be there to guide me past that dark moment." How . . . mature.

Oh, yeah, and the sex is great too. ;)

(P.S. Before this, I'd attempted Maggie Robinson's Mistress by Marriage, but just could not deal with it, as the protagonists, another unhappily married couple, seemed to actually hate each other, but kept bangin' anyway. I mean, the heroine thinks in the first chapter something about how she doesn't miss him at all, but she does miss his penis. Gross.)

Coral Glynn (Peter Cameron)

Have I told you the story of how I happened upon Peter Cameron? (Not that it is terribly interesting.) He was writer-in-residence in November '04 for the Wichita State University MFA creative writing program--I was blundering about in grad school at the time (this would last another semester), and so attended his reading at Watermark Books, where I'd launch my career as a bookseller in March '08. I was immediately taken with the prose he read from The City of Your Final Destination (which may have the best-observed naturalistic dialogue I've ever encountered). Since then, I'd only read his YA-hardcover-adult-paperback Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, a latter-day Catcher in the Rye in all the best ways--but even with only two novels under my belt, I count Cameron as one of my favorite authors, and I tracked down an ARC of Coral Glynn as soon as it became available.

It's strikingly different from the other books of his I've read--largely because it's so painstakingly unmodern in style, written as if contemporaneous with its story, set in the English countryside during the wet spring of 1950. It reads Graham-Greene-y to me, though the back cover copy says it's "[b]orrowing from themes and characters prevalent in the work of mid-twentieth-century British women writers." (Which elicits the question WHO, darn it, besides Muriel Spark? Doris Lessing, perhaps? Probably the answer lies within the NYRB Classics catalog.) But it's much less interior than Greene, very much lives observed from without, with a deadpan, detached eye. The eponymous Miss Glynn is a visiting nurse at an isolated manor house, caring for the terminally ill Mrs. Hart, wandering through the nearby woods, flinching from human contact--though her options are limited to the old woman's son, Clement, badly burnt in World War Two and unhappily homosexual, and the disgruntled housekeeper, Mrs. Prence, rather a classic character of English fiction. One day, Coral happens upon two children playing a cruel "game" in a thicket of holly, but mentions it to nobody; later, she consents to marry Clement after his mother's death, an emotionless convenience for them both.

I can't quite put my finger on how it's done, but the novel is both formal to the point of frigidity, and suffused with melancholy and malice. Coral, Clement, his friend and former lover Robin, Robin's chattery alcoholic wife, Dolly: these are all people burying severe pain so deep they almost succeed in erasing it. And there isn't the sudden explosion you'd think, that usually occurs in books of this nature--these people just continue to live, working hard to achieve an unspectacular happiness. It's a question of survival: as Clement says, asking Coral to marry him, that "I can feel it already, something inside me, someone inside me, moving from room to room, shutting all the doors, shuttering the windows." A terrifying feeling.

26 February 2012

Zone One (Colson Whitehead)

I could so easily make this review just a grumpy refutation of the wrong-wrong-wrongness of other reviews of Zone One, Colson Whitehead's masterful zombie novel. But this book just made me so dang happy, I'd rather just react to my own experience, which was unimpeachably positive.
The immediate narrative follows Mark Spitz (a nickname the protagonist acquired in what he keeps referring to as "cursed Connecticut") and the rest of his sweeper unit through the ruins of lower Manhattan. Most of humanity worldwide has succumbed to a plague that's turned millions into shambling, mindless, ravenous beasts, called "skels" by the still-sentient remnants left behind to alternately flee and kill their once-fellow man. Spitz is part of an effort by the provisional U.S. government in Buffalo to reclaim the island from skels and their even more unsettling cousins, the stragglers--former people trapped helplessly in a single moment, unresponsive and unreachable--as part of their "American Phoenix" PR campaign, an endlessly hilarious and macabre conceit that imagines corporate sponsorship of the post-apocalypse, complete with theme music and branded merch.

But the bulk of the book, as befits a story that takes place after the end of the world, happens in the past, in the memories of Mark Spitz and the other survivors he's encountered since Last Night. Whitehead writes with such gleeful ease, and he's so funny, it's easy to forget this is an unbearably tragic novel, burdened with loss and loneliness; he accomplishes what the best sci-fi writers do (and seriously, let's just shelve this one there, OK? unless you persist in believing that "literary" just means "well-written"), finding the mundane in the bizarre, the life that continues in the face of the unthinkable and unreal. I loved, loved, loved this book.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)

One-word review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: disappointment. Two-word review: wasted potential. Emoticon review: :\

Shall I articulate a bit more? First, credit where it's due: Riggs has collected a fascinating array of old trick photographs--levitating girls, invisible boys. Black & white adds a creep factor, of course, and the how'd-they-do-that-before-Photoshop puzzlement ups the nagging voice in the back of your head wondering if their depictions are real. But the thousands of words accompanying the photos don't live up to their worth as inspiration. His choice to use them not as illustration but as actual artifacts in the story leads to some really awkward "and I remembered this picture I saw" moments in the prose.

Which prose is woefully serviceable, though the prologue is attention-getting: sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman has grown up with his Polish-refugee grandfather's stories about an idyllic island off the coast of Wales where he lived as a child, and the monsters who threatened it, presenting the photos as evidence of his classmates' outré abilities. Jacob believes and disbelieves in turn--and then one day, he gets a frantic phone call from Grandpa Portman, who's convinced that his enemies have finally tracked him down. When Jacob arrives to comfort the supposedly demented old man, he finds him eviscerated . . . and then he sees the creature of his ancestor's nightmares in the flesh.

Promising, yes. But it goes downhill from there. Some of the blame is to be placed on false advertising: he book was marketed as young-adult or even an adult crossover, when it would have worked much better as middle-grade (take out the lackluster love story and the needless repetitions of the word "shit," cut it by at least 100 pages), and further portrayed as a horror tale, when it stops being scary after the prologue (except, perhaps, to an 8-10-year-old) and eventually becomes derivative* sci-fi fantasy, with backstory imparted in unforgivably expository HERE IS WHAT IS HAPPENING monologues. Then it has the gall to end on a to-be-continued!!

Maybe I should revise that emoticon. Let's give it a >:( for wasting my time.

*SPOILER: love the X-Men? Then you'll be extra irritated by the titular bunch of knock-offs!

18 February 2012

Mr. Fortune (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune is an odd little book--or rather, one and a half odd little books, the short novel Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927) and its novella sequel, "The Salutation" (1932), collected by NYRB Classics in one volume. I set out to confuse myself by not reading the introduction, so that I assumed it was written in the 50s--and being off by decades in 20th-century literature can really throw one for a loop, believe me. I still can't put my finger on just what it is I don't quite get about the stories, but there's a nagging sense of irresolution. Though not an unpleasant one.

Anyway, enough about my reaction to the book. The first installment (which uses the term "maggot" to mean "fancy or whim," a definition hitherto unknown to me) takes place on the Polynesian island of Fanua, where the title character has spent three years as a missionary with only one convert to show for it--and his relationship with said convert, an adolescent boy, is less shepherd and sheep than vaguely romantic, right on the edge of being unsettling. An earthquake causes a crisis of faith for them both, and leads Mr. Fortune to some strikingly modern conclusions about the imperial exercise. "The Salutation" picks up some years afterwards, when Mr. Fortune, adrift and bereft after his sudden decision to leave Fanua, ends up living on the charity of an Argentinean woman, the widow of an Englishman who feels an obligation to her late husband's countryman.

My favorite thing about the book is feeling the author's attitude towards her own character slowly shift, from satire to affection. Warner starts out, I think, with Mr. Fortune as a comic villain, imposing British society on a people with no need of its strictures; but as time wears on, his basic good nature gets under her skin, and he becomes less a figure of fun than a sympathetic striver, a man prone to rushed decisions who has little to no idea how to deal with other human beings or his own emotions. And that makes Mr. Fortune fascinating to read: lyrical, interior, a portrait of a man who, while hardly unusual in real life, is rarely so deeply depicted in fiction.

The Dangerous Viscount (Miranda Neville)

Thank you, thank you, Ms. Neville, for answering my plea for a nerd hero! AND he's a virgin, who learns how to please a lady by reading 19th-century sex guides! The Dangerous Viscount is, in fact, the second book in a series centered on a bunch of literary collectors (the author once worked for Sotheby's rare book department). And in the first one, The Wild Marquis, the heroine is a bookseller!!!!! AIEEE!!!! I don't even care that the eponymous hero is another incorrigible rake.

OK, deep breaths. Let's see if I can eke out a plot summary through my excitement: we have Lady Diana Fanshawe, widow, member of an inconveniently unconventional family--inventor father, hunting-dog-breeding mother, little sister determined to become a diplomat. She's decided to marry again, and settled on handsome and titled Lord Blakeney, eventual duke (even though he's the Regency version of a dumb jock). Then she meets his bespectacled, socially awkward cousin, Sebastian Iverley. Seriously, dude is almost Asperger-y, prone to grunting in lieu of conversation, except when he's holding forth on bindings and folios and the like. She bets Blakeney she can get Iverley to kiss her . . . and we're off!

There's a throw-our-lovers-together twist I'm not crazy about, but I found this one almost entirely delightful. Neville is the funniest romance novelist I've read, and Sebastian is a dork girl's dreamboat. Thumbs up!

09 February 2012

A Night to Surrender (Tessa Dare)

Liked but didn't love Tessa Dare's A Night to Surrender. Fantastic first chapters, and I really dig the setting for the series of which this is the beginning: Spindle Cove, a tiny seaside town that local gentlewoman Susanna Finch has turned into a haven for oddball ladies from all over England. Some are too smart for gentlemens' social comfort, some are sickly and made sicker by Regency medicine (bleeding and leeches and mercury, oh my!), some are fleeing bad relationships; all are thrilled to find this enclave, nearly all female, and dedicated to just letting them be themselves, whoever that should be.

Of course, this can't last--there wouldn't be a story otherwise! And so Lieutenant Colonel Victor Bramwell, still limping from a knee shattered by a French bullet, comes to town with his corporal and his ne'er-do-well cousin, Lord Payne, hoping Susanna's father, gunsmith Sir Lewis Finch, can use his influence to get him back commanding in the field--the only life he's ever known, and the only life he's ever loved. They meet with a literal explosion--Payne's novel idea for scaring a flock of sheep blocking their path--as Bram tackles Susanna out of harm's way, and then can't resist stealing a kiss.

Both main characters are strong and opinionated--so of course there's some good verbal sparring in between the smoochin'--and Susanna's unconventional and fiercely protective attitude towards her bevy of misfit maidens makes her immediately likeable. Oh, and Bram acquires a pet lamb named Dinner, which is obviously awesome. There were just a few things that kept me from being completely swept up: first [SLIGHT SPOILER], I didn't care for Susanna's father's feet of clay; second, I know there's no romantic way of describing coitus interruptus, but "[i]n some primitive way, it satisfied him to mark her"? EW. And I'm grumpy about the couple being set up for the next in the series, A Week to be Wicked (out in March!), because the lady is an impetuous, bespectacled geologist prone to carrying around a reticule full of interesting rocks, whereas the dude is . . . an incorrigible rake. HE DOES NOT DESERVE HER. MORE NERD HEROES PLZ!!!!

06 February 2012

Going Home (Jon Katz)

OK, this entry is going to make me cry if it goes on too long, so I'll keep it brief.

On the left? Me and Juliana. I got her when I was 15 and she was a silly itty witsy kitten--now she's 17, and slowing down: skinny, easily confused, prone to yowling piteously in the night. She may have a brain tumor, or have suffered a stroke, since she's got an uncontrollable head tremor and a tendency to walk in tight little circles, always turning to the right. Our time together has been wonderful--I have spent more hours with her than any single human being--but it is coming to an end, and it hurts so much to contemplate.

But it hurts a little less after reading Jon Katz's Going Home. Subtitled "Finding Peace When Pets Die," it's a very simple but profound and necessary book. Katz is known for his writing about animals, particularly the border collies that live with him on his farm; the genesis of this book was his having to euthanize his beloved dog Orson. Like most pet owners, he struggled with guilt and depression, as well as the persistent shame of being so broken up over an animal: "It's only a cat, after all," says our rational self (and sometimes misguided people who are trying to help).

Katz advocates inhabiting your grief, while trying to let go of guilt--animals do not fear death, he reminds us,  because they don't understand it, even while it's happening--and perhaps creating rituals for yourself to honor your pet and the joy you shared. I've decided that upon Julie's eventual death, I will donate a sum to a Siamese rescue group, and design a felt cameo to approximate her sweet little face. I'm not saying it won't be hard--devastating, even. But I know I won't be alone.

[UPDATE: Julie died February 13. Bye-bye, little kitty bean.]

04 February 2012

Wedding reads.

Yep, that's right: gettin' hitched! In October, at the amazing Queens County Farm Museum, which means we get to take a break from setup to get lost in a CORN MAZE!!!

And because I am me, my first step in a huge undertaking is sussing out books on the subject (did the same thing when I moved to NYC). Due to our realistic budget and general non-buying-into the Wedding-Industrial Complex's soul-sucking (and vaguely misogynistic) materialism, said books are focused on creativity, bargains, and niceness. Here are three reads that have been reassuring, wise and helpful thus far.

First up, Meg Keene's fantastic A Practical Wedding, based on her blog of the same name. This is a wedding book that starts off by talking about joy, and ends with embracing imperfection and the knowledge that the wedding is a blip in your married life. Great stuff, and very thoughtful about both logistical concerns and the strange alchemy of marriage, where two people become one unit. She also provides a clear overview of how U.S. weddings have actually been held over time--a century ago, almost everyone got married at home, wearing their best clothes, whatever color they happened to be--to keep in mind when worrying about tradition. Best advice:
  • You won't remember how your wedding looks; you'll remember how it feels.
  • A good way to plan the event? Think of the parties the two of you usually have. Then just scale it up.
  • Pay attention to the ceremony itself! That's the real thing; the rest just celebrates it.

I also enjoyed Denise and Alan Fields' Bridal Bargains, which as the title implies concentrates on inexpensive alternatives to the all-out debt-incurring bashes sold by the WIC. I skimmed over a lot that didn't apply to us--I'm wearing my mom's dress, for instance, so I skipped the gowns chapter--but there's a lot of good and specific advice to be gleaned, and a total willingness to name names. Definitely worth a look if you're not rolling in dough.

And I haven't re-read it yet, but Miss Manner's Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding came out while my sister and brother-in-law were in the midst of the planning process, and as the maid of honor, I read it for backup. It is scathingly hilarious (as is Ms. Martin's wont) and eminently practical. The largest lesson to take from this one is that etiquette aims to make people contented and comfortable, not stressed or humiliated. And asking people for money is the height of tackiness. (She even thinks registries are tacky, but admits that they're so expected one might as well create one . . . just only tell people about it if they ask.) Can't wait to re-traipse through, laughing and thinking, "Well, at least I'm not these people." Just like watching Toddlers & Tiaras!

01 February 2012

Romance February II: The Quickening Boogalo: This Time It's Personal. IN SPACE

For all those waiting breathlessly for the second annual installment of Romance February--in which I read more romance novels than usual, and also your regularly scheduled bunch of stuff--herewith, The List!
That's ten, for those keeping score. I reserve the right to carry over into March, because ARCs and book clubs and wedding planning and YEESH. Books, man. There are just so dang many of them sometimes.
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