Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Set in California, this novel follows four generations of the Catholic Santerre family from World War II to the present. In a family driven as much by jealousy and propriety as by love, an unspoken tradition of deceit is passed from generation to generation. When tragedy shatters their precarious domestic lives, it takes courage and compassion to bring them back together.

Very slowly I'm getting back to reading, and tackling this month's book club read on audiobook seemed like the best way to get it read (my track record this year has been far from stellar). Audiobook proved to be an excellent choice, and Liars and Saints a great book to ease me back into the world of fiction.
It can be difficult to create character voices that are easy to distinguish, and most authors limit themselves to two, maybe three points of view per book for that exact reason. Maile Meloy went all in with her debut novel: she has seven. Moreover, these seven characters grow and change as the story progresses, and their voices change with them, never losing their individuality. That was actually my favorite thing about this book, how well the author wrote her characters and their imperfections, self-doubts, courage and faith. They kept me listening, and that is what ultimately counts as far as characters go.
This book was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, and while I can see why it went as far as to be short-listed I also see why it did not win. The plot is to blame, particularly two aspects of it. One came about half-way through and it required me to suspend my disbelief a bit too much. Had it been omitted I wouldn't have minded, in fact, it would have kept me more grounded in the story. The second time the plot development didn't work for me was toward the end of the book, and this time it seemed like a cop-out that forced the story toward resolution. I haven't read very many novels that tell about several generations of a family, so I can't give examples of ones where similar situations would've been handled better, I just know that the way Meloy wrapped up her book didn't work all that well for me. (You have no idea how hard it is to abide by my own no-spoilers policy right now.)
When cover copy tells you that this is a story of a family with a history of deception you begin reading with the expectation of wowza moments. If there are no such moments then what's the point of telling such a story, right? Well, let me tell you, there is a wowza moment alright. When I first realized where the author was going I was sure she wasn't going to actually go there. But she did. All the way. It's quite a shocker, and I can't tell you want it was, but it made me post on FB and Twitter that I was suitably shocked. (Don't you wish right now I didn't have a no-spoilers policy?)
If you are looking for a novel that's a quick read, has rich characters and a plot that at times approaches the twists and turns of a daytime soap opera this book is for you!

Monday, March 3, 2014

The long hiatus

My friends, I haven't been posting in a very long time. My apologies for that. I don't know when I'll be back. I haven't been reading much lately because for over three months now I've been dealing with health issues in the family, and at the same time watching events unfold in my home country, Ukraine.
In Ukraine a protest became a standoff, which became an armed conflict, which in turn became a revolution. Close to a hundred people died, hundreds were injured, many disappeared, a president was voted out by the parliament, a new government was established, and before the people could celebrate their blood-soaked victory a war broke out. You may have heard about all that on the news. If you haven't, here's a post on the New York Review of Books which will shed some light on the events, and here's a slide-show that will show you what the NYTBR can't show in a blog post. All of my family is still in Ukraine, and although they are not in the middle of the conflict, that may change at any time. You see, Ukraine is not that large of a country, only roughly the size of Texas.
As you can see a lot has been going on for me, a lot to watch and a lot to worry about. I'll be back when I can. Thank you for bearing with me.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Movie Trailer: The Fault In Our Stars

One of the first books I read and reviewed last year was The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene, and now, almost a year later, the first trailer for the upcoming movie has been released. Prepare your tissues, everybody.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

A travel writer takes a job with a shady publishing company in New York, only to find that she must write a guide to the city - for the undead!

I've been a fan of Mur Lafferty's podcast, I Should Be Writing, for a while now, I've listened to her Marco and the Red Granny and Playing For Keeps (both available on Podiobooks), and was very excited when she sold her first book to a publisher. Mur loves her fans, so one of the things she did was podcast her book for free. We're on an extremely tight budget right now, so although I wanted to buy the book I had to listen to the podcast and console myself that I would buy the sequel.
The best thing about The Shambling Guide is that it's fun and fast-paced, and the main characters are colorful and engaging. I particularly liked Morgen the water sprite and the baker at the cafe, they stole the show at least half the time for me. There was snappy dialogue, descriptions that set the scene just enough without taking away the readers' ability to fill in some details on their own, and enough humor to make me chuckle on a number of occasions. I had a blast listening to it. Of course having the author read the book is an extra bonus because they put the emphasis where they want it to be, and the whole experience feels more intimate than when there's a professional voice actor in the picture.
Lafferty's world-building skills deserve a special mention. There are zombies, vampires, golums, all of which roughly follow the traditional lore of being dangerous creatures, but the author has made them her own and humanized them along the way. Of course this happens when you are looking at them from inside their world and witness their weaknesses and their struggles to make it in a world where nobody's supposed to know about them.
There's a lot to recommend this book, yet there was enough that didn't work for me to spoil the experience. Some characters came to life and some were pretty flat. Take Arthur the love interest, he was just a generic hot guy with a bunch of preconceived notions. The protagonist, Zoë, is too comfortable too soon in her new job and with her co-workers. Yeah, the pay is good and she needed the job, but she is almost blasé when it comes to the world of monsters where she suddenly finds herself. Would you be totally cool if you found out that your boss is a vampire (not vegetarian either) and that every one of your coworkers can kill you without exerting themselves too much? I know I wouldn't.
There was a sex scene, which, although well-executed, didn't have to be there and didn't really do anything to move the story forward or develop any of the characters. (For fairness' sake I do have to admit that this is my usual complaint about sex scenes, and unless the book is a romance I'd rather authors kept them out of the story. After all, what exactly has to happen between the sheets to serve the story or character development? Off the top of my head, not too many options there.) The mystery at the center of the story was interesting and I was surprised to find out who the villain was, but there was so much going on during the final battle that frankly I lost track of it all and just waited for it to be over. If it was a paper book I would've skimmed the pages and gotten to the end. All in all I thought her shorter works were tighter and therefore more effective, the novel format allowed for too much room for digression.
The Shambling Guide is a fun read and if you've had a stressful stretch it's just the thing to get your mind off the problems. Get the audio book to give you a charge for the work day or to help you unwind during your commute in the evening. It's not great, but for all its faults it is good enough to make me want to pick up the sequel, Ghost Train to New Orleans, and to hope that there will be a third book. After all, I believe writers get better with every new novel. Unless their work becomes formulaic, but that's a topic for another time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This is the story of two boys bonded forever in childhood: the stunted Owen Meany, whose life is touched by God, and the orphaned Johnny Wheelwright, whose life is touched by Owen. From the accident that links them to the mystery that follows them – and the martyrdom that parts them – the events of their lives form a tapestry of fate and faith.

One of my resolutions for this year is to not keep reading a book if it's not working for me. I'll give it a 100 pages, 150 tops, and if there are no fireworks it's off with the book's head, figuratively speaking.
A Prayer for Owen Meany was on my book club's reading list, and it seemed everyone loved it, except for me. I gave it 150 pages, but then it had to go. Why, you ask? Because I simply did not care, neither about Johnny, nor about Owen, or about the events that would take place, to which Johnny continuously alluded. I also stopped because if the book is going to go on and on about not much it better not be 600+ pages. Better yet, something should be happening, and it shouldn't take 100+ pages to cover the events described in the jacket copy.
Don't get me wrong, Irving's prose is beautiful, his observations of the human condition are astute and presented in a subtle way. I'm sure he is a great writer, and I still look forward to reading Cider House Rules. Maybe it wasn't the right time for me to read this book, maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, or maybe it's just that at the end of the day I prefer books where things happen at a reasonably swift pace, and here they simply weren't.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gearing up for 2014

2014 is here and I still feel like I'm in 2013, reading-wise. Of course it doesn't help that I still need to review The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty, or that I've been reading Angela's Ashes for at least two months now. Of course I do have a good reason for this: I'm working on a very time-consuming project I'll tell you about when I can. In the meantime, all I can say is that in light of this massive project I'm cutting back on my fiction-reading plans for this year. Here's the rough list, and yes, there are some titles on here that I didn't get to last year. I'm excited!

Building Stories
City of Lost Souls
Code Name Verity
Dead End in Norvelt
Dear Life: Stories
The Dream Thieves
The Good Lord Bird
The Interestings
Liars and Saints
May We Be Forgiven
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Night Film
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The One and Only Ivan
The Orphan Master's Son
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
A Prayer for Owen Meany
The Sandcastle Girls
Say Her Name