The Red House by Mark Haddon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I just finished reading The Red House by Mark Haddon, known for his bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I picked up his most recent novel at the library, sold on it by the opening paragraph:
“Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per house, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now. Hogwarts and Adlestrop. The night mail crossing the border, Cheyenne sweeping down from the ridge. Delta blues from the boxcar. Somewhere, those secret points that might just switch and send you curving into a world of uniformed porters and great-aunts and summers at the lake.”
Really, it was that phrase: the train unzips the fields…Absolutely lovely and evocative and true. I’ve been on that train, seen that very thing from the window, that journey through the unknown. That line was the ticket that opened up this world. That’s what good writing should do.
The story, told from multiple points of view, often reads like poetry. Sometimes you don’t know whose thoughts you’re in…and it doesn’t really matter. The atmosphere of an English family holiday has surprising elements of coziness, even among the family discord and each individuals’ personal dramas. A reader can happily get lost in Haddon’s universe for a while.
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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel had everything I look for in a book—smart, likable, flawed characters; an engaging plot; ideas to convey that are more than just “he likes me, she hates me, the world sucks”; fantastic writing; and a little something extra that keeps you turning pages. What’s it called? That ineffable IT. I got the chuckles—had to explain myself to my husband when I woke him up at night and to friends at Birch Lake where we hung out last week. Laughing out loud—always a good thing.
A bonus was Semple’s The New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” piece included at the end of the book. It’s about a PC preschool teacher trying to set up a Day of the Dead altar…Let’s just say, if you don’t have young children or you do have a certain earnestness, perhaps you won’t think it as hilarious as I do…Oh heck, give it a try.
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The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As I read the first few chapters of this novel, it occurred to me that I probably would not have chosen to read it on my own, had it not been for my overriding need to know how Rowling’s writing and imagination fare outside of Hogwarts. The characters of the small English parish town of Pagford are pretty stereotyped and they are hard to like—usually an important criterion for me. But I was curious–as many a fan of the Harry Potter series is–about how Rowling would do in a world grounded in realism—and trust me, it is a harsh, cold, ugly, brutal realism. (I happened to be simultaneously rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with my daughter, so it’s been fun to see the way Rowling’s themes run through her works, and how she paints flawed, very human characters—Harry, just tell Dumbledore you’re hearing voices! Suhkvinder, just tell your mom you’re being tormented by the high school psycho!)
Had The Casual Vacancy been her only book, Rowling would likely still be teaching for a living, but not because the book isn’t any good. It’s very good, but it’s also hard to read. Pagford is populated by anti-heroes—my favorite is Howard Mollison, the obese, self-satisfied member of the parish council, the enemy of the poor and disenfranchised, who’s also charming and funny. It’s the kind of book you read in an English class or because you want to learn how to write literary fiction like a billionaire novelist (just kidding).
In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out. Again, my curiosity got the best of me, and about halfway through I found myself reluctantly looking forward to reading the next chapter, and the next. Kind of the way you look forward to getting some exercise at lunchtime or brushing your teeth when you’re so exhausted—you don’t really want to, but you have to because it’s good for you, and you know it. This is a Book of Ideas with a Message and Thought-provoking Issues: teenage cyber-bullying, self-mutilation/cutting, small town politics, child abuse, drug abuse, societal pariahs, bigotry, racism, classism, and redemption—yes, even redemption! If it makes you more compassionate or at least yearn to be so, then Rowling has done her job. So…take a deep breath, read it, then treat yourself to something frothy and pink—in liquid or book form, either will do.
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Hard to believe it’s been over two months since I’ve posted. Trust me, my intentions have been to give some updates, but I seem to have forgotten how to write anything witty or interesting. Hang on…It’s coming back…I need brain yoga for creative flow!
There isn’t much on the book front, nothing really concrete that I’m ready to share, anyway. I’ll just be cagey and say I hope to have some good news soon…The Flower Bowl Spell got a really nice review from ForeWord Reviews online. Click here if you want to read it. Yes, I do write reviews for them too; however, we are all freelancers and I don’t personally know any of their other reviewers. Actually, this is what happened: I’d entered their Book of the Year Awards 2012 contest, but got disqualified since I write reviews (Should have figured that out, right?). They offered to do an online review instead. A total no brainer. I got some feedback from a few people who have read the review via Goodreads or on my blog, saying they would check out my book. Huzzah!
On the personal front, I went to my college reunion in May, and took my daughter with me. It was our first trip with just the two of us, and we had a lot of fun. We also visited friends and relatives on the East Coast so that was a bonus. In June, my family and I went to Hong Kong to visit more relatives and see the places my mother used to frequent in her formative years. Sweltering, muggy heat, but what are you gonna do?
A conversation started at the American Girl Bistro outside Boston
(my daughter’s response: “Why would I tell you that?”)
The Hong Kong skyline
The Star Ferry in Hong Kong
Summertime ushers my kids into camp and other fun activities. It also means some of my freelance gigs slow down, so I’ve spent more time getting some rough drafts into shape. Scrivener software has been more useful than I ever imagined. The tutorial was really helpful—I don’t think I could have just plunged in and started using it without going over that—but that’s just me.
I hope all of you are having a marvelous summer. And I promise not to let two months go by without any news. Pinky promise.
And She Was: A Novel of Suspense by Alison Gaylin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I haven’t read many suspense/thriller novels, but I thought this one was well written and paced. I could not predict the ending (always a nice touch) even with the clues given, but all the answers fell into place at the end. Brenna (kept wanting to call her Brennan) is a strong protagonist—smart, flawed, all that good stuff. Her assistant Trent is not the kind of guy I know personally, so I had a hard time picturing him, but settled on The Situation from Jersey Shore. Yeah, that’ll do.
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Pete Denton is a blogger and writer from Sheffield, England, and we’ve been following each others posts for a few months now. He’s made huge strides with his writing, which he chronicles on his blog, and has garnered all kinds of blogging awards. He’s also been very encouraging when it comes to my own posts about my writing/publishing journey, which culminated today in a lovely review of The Flower Bowl Spell. Here’s an excerpt:
I cannot emphasise enough how much I got sucked into the world of Memphis Zhang. I was totally immersed in her story and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. With all the reviews I have written so far, I find it difficult to comment too much on the story or characters as I don’t want to give anything away.
What I will say is that I BELIEVED the main protagonist. I felt she came alive on the page (of my Kindle) and I cared about what happened to her throughout the story. One of the character names in particular was a stroke of GENIUS and everyone we met on the journey was well drawn…
I enjoyed the story line and the humour that’s injected into the narrative is spot on. I even broke my “not reading my Kindle on the bus” rule (I know it’s a stupid rule) as I HAD to keep reading this book. I’ve said before I judge a good book on whether the story keeps popping into my mind, well days after finishing The Flower Bowl Spell, little snippets keep doing just that.
Olivia Boler is an author I *met* blogging. I read her posts on self-publishing her story and watched with interest as the cover design was unveiled and the publication drew ever closer. This is a journey that so many people are on and it is a journey I hope to make myself one day. This makes reading a book like this more important to me. It also inspires me to make sure I write reviews and help spread the word.
This was a top professional job. Great cover, well-edited and no errors to speak about. This book gives self-publishing a HUGE pat on the back. If every self-published book was to this standard then maybe the stigma attached to going it on your own would end right here and now.
Thank you so much, Pete, for your thoughtful review. I can’t emphasize enough how touched I was by it!
To read the whole review and to learn more about Pete, click here.
Back in the day, I wrote a lot of book reviews for a major newspaper. Not a whole lot, but with some regularity. I developed a relationship with the book review editor there. Then, he left, taking a golden handshake. The new editor threw me a few bones. But eventually, he stopped. I’d send friendly emails now and then, letting him know I was available. Not one reply. “Well,” I told myself. “That’s that then.”
About a year later, I noticed that the author of the last book I critiqued for this publication had published a book review there. Hm, I thought. That’s interesting. Guess the new editor who had chosen to ignore me liked her. A few months later, another of her reviews appeared. And then another.
Today, there was a review in that very same newspaper about a new book by an author I’ve long admired. I glanced at the reviewer’s name. Guess who? Yup—the last author I had reviewed there! An author whose chosen subjects and themes have very little to do with the subjects and themes of my favorite author. Well, what did I do? I’ll tell ya!
I saw green.
I decided I sucked. As a writer. And a reviewer. And a person.
At the same time, I knew I could have written that review. I knew that my review would have been just as good, if not better. Maybe it would have won an award or gotten the notice of and a big appreciative laugh from Anthony Lane. I wondered where I had gone wrong in life, what had led me down this path of obscurity and mediocrity. When I was 30, I had so much promise! Ten years later, what have I done wrong?
But, I didn’t wallow for long. I couldn’t. I had to get dinner on the table for my kids. And I had a blog post to write, a certain rant about those doubts that are always there, even as they get shaken loose a little by the need to monitor the boiling water for chicken tortellini.