Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has been nothing but comics and book club books for the last couple months ’round these here parts. This year that’s been a pretty good thing, because I’m picking the books for one club and my friends are picking the books for the other, and there’s always great discussions to be had.

This book, however, definitely suffered from New Book Club Syndrome. The club at my library wanted an official library moderator, so I stepped in and read the book at the last minute and spent all the time after that nervous about meeting new people whose opinions I don’t already understand. Noooooot the greatest reading environment.

It is possible that NBCS is why I got to the book club meeting and wondered if the other members and I had read the same book, but it’s also possible that this is a terrible book and they’re all just wrong. I’d tell you to read it and get back to me, but I really don’t want to inflict the book on you.

Here’s the basics: The book purports to tell the story behind the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a pretty plain painting of… a girl… wearing a pearl earring. This is not rocket science. In the story, a girl called Griet (who is, as I understand, completely invented for this book) must leave her family, suffering after her father’s loss of sight and thus loss of tile-painting job, to go work as a maid in the Vermeer household. Life as a maid is rough, but things get much better and much worse for Griet when Vermeer decides to make her his secret assistant, having her prepare paints for him and eventually sit as his subject.

And, seriously, if I had known that was what this book was, I would have read the Cliff’s Notes of the movie and called it a day. But the book is short, and I wanted to do it right, so I ended up reading the whole thing. Ugh.

At book club, after everyone else talked about how great the writing was and how evocative the imagery was and how wonderful the historical setting was, they were like, so, what did you think? When my attempt to plead the fifth failed, I said something like, well, the writing was terrible and the characters were boring and I just didn’t care about any of it. And then I sat quietly and let them love on the book because I’m not a monster.

But, seriously. From the very beginning I knew the writing wasn’t for me — there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, there’s a lot of Griet knowing things that she doesn’t seem like she should know anything about, and the sentences are full of unnecessary words or missing important words like “Vermeer”. But maybe the characters would make up for it? No, it’s mostly just Griet in the book and she’s the one thinking all those unnecessary words and also painting all the other characters as just one thing, good or bad. Maria Thins was okay, but even she was mostly inscrutable.

And then I didn’t care about the plot because I didn’t care about Griet and she is the only thing going in this whole darn book. I don’t care how hard your maid work is, I don’t care about your weird suitor and your weirder crush, I don’t care about this apparently horrible scandal that you don’t seem to be getting that worked up about.

The one maybe interesting bit of the novel is the part where Vermeer recruits Griet to make paint and we get a couple pages about how paint used to be made with bits of bone and other weird stuff and stored in… kidneys? I think?… and then we get a couple other pages about Vermeer’s painting process, which involves a camera obscura so that’s pretty cool. Facts! I like them!

So, yeah. I was definitely not the target audience for this book, and I definitely wish I hadn’t bothered reading it, but if you’re an art person or a Netherlands person or an historical fiction person, you’ll probably like this a heck of a lot better than me.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI hadn’t intended to read The Sparrow so soon after my last read of it, but I ended up having to fill an emergency book-club slot and I wanted to make sure I had a winner of a book. Of course, shortly after I announced this as the next book, I started hearing horror stories all across the internet (by which I mean one horror story on a podcast) about someone else’s book club where no one liked The Sparrow.

Luckily that’s not actually possible and that person was clearly lying, as my second book club reading went just as fantastically as the first!

There’s just so much greatness in The Sparrow, starting with the chilling-on-a-re-read last line of the prologue — “They meant no harm.” Seriously, chills. Then there’s the competing Before and After plotlines that don’t seem like they can come together until they rush headlong into each other just exactly like Sandoz rushes headlong into Askama to start this whole narrative. And there’s the worldbuilding, which, in a present very close to the present of the story (2015 to the story’s 2019), seems oddly prescient about some things and very very happily completely wrong about others. Hooray for iPads and a lack of institutionalized slavery! (Though as one book clubber pointed out, not a lack of slavery in general.)

But I’ve talked about all that before (see link above), and I will talk your head off about it if you even tangentially mention this book in my presence. What was cool about reading the book this time was that Scott and I chose to listen to it on our road trip up to Cleveland, so we got to experience a very different re-read together. There was much pausing and discussing of the book while we drove, and it was really fun to see how we took parts of the book very differently.

And, of course, it was cool to hear the book. The narrator, David Colacci, was maybe not a master of accents, but he put on a good show, and I realized for the first time how ridiculously multicultural (still pretty white, but multicultural) the characters are. I mean, I knew there were Texans and Italians and Puerto Ricans in the book, but let’s be real, they all had Cleveland accents in my head. So it was neat to hear how they “really” sounded. Colacci also did a good job with tone and volume, putting a lot of emotional depth into Sandoz’s pain and Sofia’s reticence and the narration about everything awful that happens to everyone in this book. At first I was a little put off by this, because it can be really hard to hear those quiet parts while driving without losing an eardrum to a normal speaking voice, but since I already kind of knew what was happening it turned out pretty okay after all. I will definitely be seeking this narrator out for future audiobooks.

I will also keep recommending this book to everyone. I knew my first book club would love it because I know them pretty well, but I was really nervous about this second book club because the members have wildly varying ages and religions and viewpoints and I was worried that like two people would show up. But the ten of us who came all at least appreciated the book, and we had a great discussion about fate and belief and responsibility without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, and several people said they would be seeking out the sequel, so I’m glad to get more people on the MDR train.

Recommendation: Um, go read it, obviously. If you’ve only read it once, read it again.

Rating: 10/10, perpetually, always

The Stand, by Stephen King

The StandThis book. I don’t even know what to do with it.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times, I tried to read this book on a vacation a couple years ago and got just over halfway through before the vacation ended and I got caught up in other, shorter books. So when it became the October read for my book club, I was like, hey, now I’ll finally have to read the darn thing! But of course I didn’t remember much of the first half, so I started over at the beginning and read the whole updated version, all 1200 pages of it, over the course of three and a half weeks. I am never getting those three and a half weeks of my reading life back.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good book, it’s just not the book I wanted it to be. I always forget that Stephen King’s doorstops are focused more on worldbuilding than on, say, story or plot or characters, and I get frustrated when things refuse to move at a reasonable pace and when the “I know something that character doesn’t know” lasts chapter after chapter after chapter with no resolution in sight. It didn’t help that I’d recently read Station Eleven, which, as I described to my book club, is kind of like The Stand but twenty years later and a heck of a lot quicker. Oh, quicker, I miss you.

But The Stand was a truly appropriate read right now, with Ebola in the news and the flu starting to go around, so I was probably more creeped out by it than I would have been had I actually finished it two years ago. Yay, creepy!

If you don’t know, The Stand follows the accidental release of a manmade flu that kills something like 99 percent or more of the US population, if not the world’s population. The first many chapters involve lots of people developing a sniffle and then dying a horrific death, and then eventually the survivors of these chapters start dreaming about a Good person and an Evil person and they start seeking out their preferred new leader. Mostly the book sticks with the Good survivors as they all make their way to Nebraska and then Boulder, Colorado, where they settle and collect more survivors and work to form an interim government and get life back on track. There’s a running undercurrent of worry about the Evil survivors and their creepy-pants leader Randall Flagg that is obviously going to have to resolve itself in some kind of epic showdown, but mostly the book is just about people doing day-to-day things in a strange new world.

I had no trouble coming back to the book every day to find out what was going on with all these people that I was starting to care for and worry about, though I really wanted that whole epic showdown thing to show up quick because seriously, I wanted to know who was going to win. So then when I got to the showdown and spoilers, it’s neither epic nor really showdown-y, I was like, you have got to be kidding me. And yes, I get that that’s kind of the point, that life doesn’t actually have epic showdowns even when people bring atomic bombs to a gunfight (no, really), but I WANTED A SHOWDOWN, people.

At least I totally called the survival of my favorite characters at the expense of my only-slightly-less-favorite characters, because otherwise I would have had to go find a print copy of this book in order to fling it across the room. Throwing a Kindle is just not the same.

Recommendation: Go read Station Eleven, it’s so much shorter and probably better. Or read this if you’ve got the time and the inclination to enjoy Stephen King. It’s a decent one.

Rating: 6/10

RIP Update

Hello lovely RIPers and spectators! The weather around here has been hinting at fall, but it hasn’t quite taken hold yet. My sweaters are quivering in the dresser!

The StandBut it’s definitely been a spooky couple of weeks around here. As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve been reading The Stand for my book club, which so far has been mostly re-reading; I read half of the book two years ago on vacation and then never got around to reading the rest of it. I’m glad I re-read the first half, as I had forgotten all but the broadest strokes of the story, but the fact that it took me two weeks to get through that first half again is a bit disheartening. After the first harrowing bit where everyone’s dying of government-made flu (which is even more harrowing with the start of regular flu season and the recent ebola worries), there’s been a lot of nothing going on, although it’s clear that King’s building up to a big fight between Good and Evil. I’m intrigued to see where it goes, but I’m not really in any hurry to get there.

HannibalIn TV, Scott and I finished up Hannibal season one, which definitely got better and creepier after those first two episodes, largely because it becomes more obvious that Hannibal is not only a bad guy, but the bad guy. He’s very very good at being the bad guy, too, which led to me being angry at fictional characters at the end of the season when Hannibal has them completely outsmarted. I had to look up the storyline for the second season to make sure that I wouldn’t want to kill Hannibal myself whenever that season gets around to being on demand for me. Come soon!

What are you all consuming in the spirit of the season?

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

SpeakWhen I saw this book come up for my book club, I was like, ugh, I didn’t like that one, I’ll be skipping that discussion. Then I realized I had gotten Speak mixed up with Catalyst, the latter of which I read for my YA Services class in grad school and which is a companion novel to Speak and about which I remember nothing except that I didn’t like it and I never read a Laurie Halse Anderson novel again (mostly coincidentally).

Part of my confusion was that Speak is one of those novels that I’d heard enough about that I was sure I must have read it, and so when I realized I hadn’t I was happy to correct that oversight. Unfortunately, I’d also heard enough that I spent most of the book wondering when the parts I’d heard about were going to happen, which kind of ruined the reading experience for me. If you’ve also not read the book, you may want to skip this and come back later so as not to find yourself in the same situation!

Speak tells the story of Melinda, a freshman who started off her high-school career on some unspecified terrible foot. All her friends have abandoned her, kids she doesn’t even know hate her, and she’s really just hoping to coast through freshman year and maybe the rest of high school without any big confrontations.

That’s almost the entire story, really… Melinda goes to class, she gets pity-friended by the new girl, we find out what she did that got her shunned, she gets berated by her parents for having terrible grades, she tries to figure out how to make an artsy tree for art class, we find out why she did what got her shunned, she survives the year intact.

And when I was reading it, I was like… cool? I had already known what the why part was, so all the little hints that Anderson dropped made me go, “Yes, yes, thank you, let’s get to the part where we talk about that” rather than “Huh, suspicious, what’s that about?” And then when I got to the part where we talk about that, it was a few pages of melodrama and then just more Melinda goes to class boring stuff. I felt kind of cheated.

But now, having had a few weeks to reflect on the story, I can see that it is way more awesome than I gave it credit for. It would certainly have helped if I didn’t know the secret, but even knowing it I didn’t know everything and neither did Melinda, so I was actually probably a bit closer to her than I would have been going in cold. And for all that I wanted Anderson to just move the story along, well, she moved it along as fast as it would actually go over the course of one school year. I’m just old and time goes faster these days, I guess.

A friend noted that she was surprised I hadn’t read this book when I was of a high-school age (this book came out when we were probably in middle school or so), and I really wish I could go back in time and let my high-school self know that there were books that were better than Sweet Valley University and more age-appropriate than Middlesex just waiting for me to read them. I think I would have enjoyed this much more ten or fifteen years ago, but I am glad that I finally got around to it. If you have other suggestions to make up for my lost YA years, let me know!

Recommendation: For any teen who needs reassurance that high school is survivable.

Rating: 8/10

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilI chose this book for my book club not because I should have read it a long time ago but because I think everyone else who lives in the South has read it and I need to catch up on my Southern literature, even that written by a Yank.

This book was a little weird to read; like In Cold Blood before it this book is a sort of non-fiction novel where most of the facts are true but Berendt takes some liberties to protect the innocent and make the story sound better when needed, which at least he acknowledges up front unlike a certain Mr. Capote.

So all this stuff happens and it’s absolutely bonkers crazypants and I am like, I really hope this is all creative license, but there is so much of it that a lot of it must be true…

Anyway, what happens is John Berendt goes down to Georgia and stays awhile and makes friends with all the people in Savannah, rich and poor and middle class and black and white (which is still a HUGE distinction in 1980s Savannah), which is pretty easy because he’s clearly told everyone he’s planning to write a book, what with all the times he writes about people telling him to include such-and-such in his book. So meta.

And so we learn a lot of the gossip of Savannah, especially about the big shots and how they all secretly hate each other (I mean, of course they do) and also about this weird dude who lives in a big house and has a tantrum-throwing hired kid living and working with him and sometimes flies a Nazi flag to annoy film crews and possibly inadvertently his Jewish neighbors.

The focus on this weird dude makes more sense when he kills the hired kid and is put on trial, with said trial taking up the last half of the book. The whole thing is nuts — the dude pleads self-defense, but it’s pretty obvious that he did some staging of the scene after the fact, but then also it turns out that police did a grand job bungling the whole case, including waltzing all around the murder site before all the pictures were taken, and also also the prosecutor is an idiot and the trial gets retried a bunch of times before a decision is made that sticks.

The whole book is nuts, but it makes a lot of things about living in the South make more sense and has a lot of interesting things to say about race and class and especially gentrification, so it’s actually a pretty useful read for new Southerners as well as a page-turning story. It also makes me want to visit Savannah again with an eye to all of this insanity, so I’m sure the Savannah tourism board loves it.

Recommendation: For those who like bonkers stories that also happen to be mostly true.

Rating: 8/10