Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ladies' Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer

I wonder what attracts an editor/publishing company to a book. What exactly is the quality that this particular manuscript has that makes someone say, "Yes, this will be a great book. We can sell hundreds (thousands?) of copies."

In particular, what was it about Keefer's story that attracted her agent? I found myself more curious about this book than I am about most, which might have something to do with where I am in my life, but I think it also has to do with the plot of The Ladies' Lending Library.

I picked up this story cold at the public library. I was intrigued by the cover art and the blurb on the back. Sadly, the blurb and the title did not accurately portray the story between the covers. That always frustrates me. Yet another of my lingering questions:

Who writes the blurbs? And how hard is it to describe the story that has actually been written?

The blurb suggests that the book will focus on the summer beach book group of a collection of women in 1968. In fact the book group is only very tangential to the story.

Despite my frustration with the difference in the proposed plot and the actual plot, there were things I really did appreciate; but I would have preferred knowing ahead of time what I was going to read.

In fact, the story revolves around the difficulties of life for Ukrainian ex-pats and their children who are trying to grow up all-American in the end of the innocent 1960s. The parents all suffer from memories of their life pre-United States that color their relationships with their children, their spouses, and their friends. The story is told from a large variety of perspectives which I enjoyed; getting inside the heads of the kids, the husbands, and the wives really created a believable world in which these people functioned.

Getting back to my first point: I think this book had incredible promise. As an editor, I could see picking up the excerpt and wanting to read more. In particular I found Keefer's descriptive voice engaging and extremely vivid. I only wish I knew how to incorporate her poetic flair without sounding phony.

However (and this is a big however for me), the plot really dragged. The lending library was a terribly small part of the plot and the story never picked up any pace. The laid-back pacing was logical, I suppose, given the plot of a lazy summer at the beach. But I did not find myself wanting to pick the book up and keep reading. And the story wasn't lacking for drama, it just wasn't written in a way to engage the reader. So, how do publishers encourage an author to rework the story in a way to give in oomph? (And is it necessary?)To push the book from being good to being really excellent?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Enclave by Kit Reed

Odd book. Very.

I read a newspaper book review of Enclave and got very excited. I can't remember the exact wording, but it made me think of China MiƩville whose Perdido Street Station was an incredible, if completely left-of-center book. It introduced me to the world of cyberpunk which I can take in small doses and enjoy when I do. So, I've spent the past couple of months hunting down Reed's Enclave. And imagine my delight when the author blurb on the cover was written by Connie Willis, another of my favorite authors. Now I knew this was going to be an amazing book.

Having read it, I just don't know. I can't even really categorize the subject. It's not science fiction, but it's closer to sci fi than any other genre. Given Reed's other books, I might classify it as literary fiction.

Anyway, the plot involves a military officer, the purported end of the world, and a bunch of rich tech-savvy kids who need boarding school to save them from themselves. It is two parts Lord of the Flies, one part Clueless with a pinch of Heart of Darkness thrown in for good measure. One of the appeals of Reed's story is how in touch she is with current pop culture and internet lingo. The kids in the story worry about their World of Warcraft characters and discuss the number of hits their YouTube videos had.

There is a lot of promise, I just don't feel that the book delivers everything is has set itself up to be. The review and the dust jacket were so promising. The set up was engaging. But about 100 pages in, I just got bored. I kept waiting for that big surprise and it never came. The characters didn't really develop from their experiences. The coda at the end could have offered more, but as it was it seemed really pat given the rest of the story.

My husband loves unique books. He enjoys novel twists and unthought of storylines. When I grabbed this book at the library I fully intended to have him read it after I had finished. I'm glad I finished Enclave or I would have been forever curious. But, as it stands, I took the book back today without offering it to him. It just didn't have enough to make it worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Mournful Teddy (A Bear Collector's Mystery) by John J. Lamb

A cozy mystery about teddy bears? Really? People will write about anything. And more importantly, people will BUY anything!

I fully admit, this was my first thought when I picked up the new Bear Collector's Mystery series. I had seen Lamb at a book signing two years ago but hadn't gotten his book at the time. It looked cute - come on, it's about teddy bear collecting. What other word would you use to describe the series?

Instead, my mom bought it later and sent me the first three books in the series. The one thing that had made me curious when I first saw him was the mere presences of a male author. Cozy mysteries are notoriously written by women, the sleuths are women, and the majority of the characters are often women (think Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. It is the epitome of cozies if you've never read one).

To my great and pleasant surprise, this book is really quite good. It is 100% cozy - no gruesome death scenes, no gory details, cute theme. But, Lamb's background created a more detailed story. The main character, like the author, is an ex-cop who has full knowledge of police procedure and insight into the criminal mind. Lamb has managed to combine a police procedural which gives technical credence to his book with the fluffiness (pun intended) of a good cozy mystery. Plus, Lamb has a witty sense of humor that is slightly off-color. He isn't afraid to be a guy, which is a nice twist in a genre that often describes men as either bohunks to be drooled over or clueless, tasteless duds to be divorced.

In addition, Lamb and his wife are teddy bear collectors. So, on top of the accuracy of the criminal side of the novel, Lamb does include all of the necessary fact building about a particular niche/hobby that has become de rigeur in the cozy mystery world. Rather than wrinkling my nose at the other two Lamb books on my shelf, I will happily pick them up to read in the next couple of months.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris

I am officially done reading books recommended by Oprah's Book Club.

I don't need to cry or question humanity every time I pick up a book. While from time to time I enjoy the opportunity to question someone's motives, I don't want to be depressed whenever I'm done with a novel. Likewise, while I appreciate that not everyone has an uplifting life and that many people suffer daily hardships just to make it until bedtime, that doesn't necessarily mean that I want to spend my days reading about their suffering.

I picked up Morris' book at a library book sale in part because it was recommended by Oprah's book club and I thought it was at the least going to be a well-written book. I took it with me on an trip because I knew it was not something that I would pick off my bookshelf given all the other things I'm dying to read. And yet, I still put the book down less than 1/3 of the way through and chose not to finish it. It's just depressing. And I could handle depressing if I found the characters engaging or cared enough about their plight to unearth the outcomes in the novel. But I didn't.

The story takes place in a small town in the 1960s. The main characters lives revolve around the town drunk - his kids who suffer from embarrassment at his antics, his ex-wife who can barely make ends meet, his mother who is suffering from dementia and still thinks he is a little boy, and his sister who is trying to take care of her dying mother and alcoholic brother. Sounds uplifting, no?

Is it a well-written book?
It's not bad.

Is it a story that is worth telling?

Is it something that I want to spend my free time interacting with?
Yeah, not really.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Gilded Chamber: a Novel of Queen Esther by Rebecca Kohn

The Gilded Chamber is a current book club book. I don't know that I would have picked it up had a friend not handed me her copy after she finished. Reading the blurb it didn't capture my attention - it is a retelling of the Biblical story of Esther. Once I had it, I figured I might as well give it a go. I read the whole book on two airplane flights which is not the most focused reading.

Possibly because of where I read it, I find myself remarkably ambivalent about this novel. I am having a hard time coming up with enough thoughts to say anything either positive or negative about the story. It was light and entertaining. It was a well thought-out, detailed rendition of a Biblical character. But I didn't find myself particularly moved as I read. I did pass it on to my mother-in-law who I think will enjoy it, but I don't know that it would occur to me to recommend this book to many readers.

A few fleeting thoughts about the book in no particular order:

1. Why does the cover art depict a brunette? An important aspect of the story is dying Esther's hair blond so she will look more like the goddess Ishtar. Throughout the book her hair is continually dyed. There is nothing in the story that makes me look at this picture and identify it with the Esther as described by Kohn. It is an overtly sexualized depiction of the harem as perceived by American audiences.

2. Can this book be described as historical fiction? In the interview at the end Kohn spends a fair amount of time describing the research that she underwent to write the novel. And while she did a lot of work, I think it is presumptuous to assume that we can guess what life was like in Esther's time. I think Kohn did as good a job as could be hoped for, but I still would like people to think of this novel more as fiction and MUCH less as history. There is just too much fantastical recreation to suggest that it is accurate.

3. What about feminism? This question in the interview with Kohn about feminism really threw me for a loop. Was Esther a feminist? How can you describe a woman who lived over 2000 years before the concept of feminism as a feminist? That is giving her too much power over her situation. While Kohn depicted her as a strong woman, she was clearly a woman of her time. And in that same vein, Kohn admitted that her depiction of life in a harem was tenuous as there is little well-done research into this very private world. So to even suggest that we can use Kohn's book as an accurate portrayal of women's lives in this era is problematic.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In college I decided to read The Great Gatsby. I didn't feel I could consider myself a well-read American having never read any Fitzgerald. At the time (and really to this day), I didn't get the appeal. The light at the end of the dock never did anything for me. I never liked Gatsby or any of the other characters. The book stood out as nothing more than one of those Classics that everyone was supposed to read and love because they were told to, not because they genuinely had any affection for the storyline. (I'm not saying people who really enjoy Fitzgerald are wrong, I'm just saying I never got the appeal).

More recently I have wanted to learn more about life in 1920/30s America. As such I have picked up a handful of novels about the interwar era written by authors of the time. I find I get a much better sense of the people and the time with a novel than with a history text. One such book was Tender is the Night. I read it on a plane on the assumption that it would be good for me, but I wouldn't really enjoy it. Happily, I was wrong. I REALLY liked Tender is the Night and for the first I time understand and appreciate Fitzgerald as a classic, worthy American literary author.

Tender is the Night revolves around a psychiatrist and his schizophrenic wife who travel around Europe chasing happiness. While the characters might not seem to resemble Fitzgerald and Zelda, the book is largely autobiographical. Fitzgerald used a number of events in the story that really happened to his family. It is the honesty of life for American ex-pats in this book that I enjoyed. Fitzgerald really captured the aimlessness of the people living in that era who flitted from city to city searching for meaning.

More than the plot, however, I found Fitzgerald's writing style dynamic and engaging. He has a descriptive ability that I find lacking in many modern authors. He can say in one or two words what takes many authors a full sentence, if not a paragraph. After reading Tender is the Night, I would like to pick up more Fitzgerald to analyze his descriptive talent.

Moral of the story: don't assume every book by an author is bad (or good, for that matter) based on the "Classic" that is over-used, over-quoted, and force fed to school students. Some of the other books might be much better.