The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchI read Tartt’s The Secret History a few years back and said then that I liked it okay but would probably like it better with time. This was a very accurate statement, as I remember the book fondly enough to be kind of excited about reading an 800-page novel by the same author. Eight hundred pages. Criminy.

I actually had to take a break in the middle of reading this book to go read Their Eyes Were Watching God for my book club, this book was so long, and it was kind of weird, actually, because I found myself thinking that Hurston’s novel was kind of not really about anything and therefore kind of boring, while at the same time being really excited to get back to Tartt’s novel, which was kind of not really about anything but somehow quite gripping.

Probably this has to do with the fact that there is one overarching plotline through the whole book, which is that at the very beginning of the book our protagonist, Theo, survives a terrorist attack at a New York art museum and also kind of maybe steals a really famous painting on his way out, for reasons that make sense at the time. Theo’s mother does not survive the bombing, and so Theo and the painting get shuffled around the country as he goes to live with a friend’s family and then his own deadbeat father and then with a person he met via the terrorist attack. And of course the longer Theo has this painting the harder it is to a) give it up and b) give it up without getting in scads of trouble.

The rest of the story, during the first part of the book, is about Theo dealing with his mother’s death and the indifference of his father’s family and his missing father and then his suddenly fatherly father and how a kid can survive an event so catastrophic. There’s a lot about Theo going about his life in New York, and then creating a new life with his father in Las Vegas that involves doing pretty much every terrible thing a teenager can do, because why not, and then going back to New York and trying to figure out what kind of life to live there. It is not unlike reading about your own childhood, though yours probably had less drug-taking, but there’s also this painting and what the heck is going to happen with this painting??

Then in the second part everything changes — Theo, who I was totally rooting for even in Las Vegas, turns into an adult who makes incredibly poor life choices and I was like, fine, don’t be a decent human being, see if I care. And then his bad decisions start having consequences and people are threatening him and other people are showing up with some nasty surprises and then the whole thing goes to Amsterdam and nothing good can come of Amsterdam. (Actually, I adore Amsterdam and had a fine bad-decision-free time there, but you know what I mean.)

I like the first part of the book quite a lot, and I liked the second part quite a lot probably only because of the first part. The story goes a little off the rails with all the stuff that is happening to Theo all at once and with the forgeries and the thievery and the guns and violence… it’s obviously super exciting at this point, and I really kept reading hoping that Theo would make it out of all these situations relatively unharmed, but it is rather more bonkers than I was prepared for.

And then the ending… much as I did with The Martian, I am allowing most of the ending but pretending the last couple of pages were mysteriously missing from my copy of the book, because I hear that those last couple of pages tie things up just a little too neatly for certain people’s sensibilities and that it probably does a disservice to the rest of the story. I hear.

But as I said at the beginning, the plot of the story isn’t really the important part; the story is really about Theo as a character and his interactions with the other characters and Tartt, as always, brings it in that regard. I loved and hated Theo, and although I enjoyed discovering the personalities and secrets of the other characters along with him, I liked also that Tartt gave those characters enough personality that I could tell when Theo was being particularly obtuse about one friend or another. Or all of them, really. Possibly most impressively, Tartt gives the titular painting its own sort of enigmatic personality, enough that I totally want to go see this painting in person along with apparently every other person who read this book. This is clearly a good reason to go back to The Netherlands, yes?

Recommendation: For people with a lot of time to give to this novel, people who like to hate characters, and people who don’t mind some bonkers in their literary fiction.

Rating: 9/10

Bone Quill, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Bone QuillGrarrrgh, cliffhangerrrrrrrrr. I hate cliffhangers. I like my books to have an end, even if it’s one that leaves a million questions to be answered by the next book. Not only is it polite to give readers an ending, it makes it easier for this particular reader to, you know, remember what happened when it comes time to read the next one! It’s only been a couple weeks since I finished the book and it’s already leaving me…

Which is really unfortunate because this book was otherwise fantastic! It begins pretty soon after the end of the last book, which saw our intrepid child artists alternately fleeing and fighting bad guys and demons using crazy art magic. Now Matt and Em are stuck inside their grandfather’s castle, safe but bored out of their skulls — well, until they inadvertently figure out a way to be neither of those.

See, it turns out that in addition to being able to animate things that they paint and speak telepathically, the twins can also — wait for it — time travel via painting. Because of course they can. On the plus side, this helps them find their missing mother; on the minus side, they find themselves in the middle of an epic battle eight hundred years ago that it is possible they may have started. Dun DUN.

I loved this book for all the reasons I loved Hollow Earth, plus reasons like time travel (yay!) and characters making very terrible decisions (yay?). I am still surprised by the realistic interactions between the kids and their respective lower-case guardians, in which the kids listen to the adults exactly as much as they think they need to, and the adults understand that the kids are still going to go do incredibly stupid things but are willing to let them make mistakes. This approach does not always work out for the best, but does any, really?

I am also very intrigued by the dun DUN parts toward the end of the story that lead into the dreaded cliffhanger, and am curious to see how the Barrowmans are going to get everyone out of this one in the appropriate number of pieces. They will, right? This is a series for kids. It’s going to be okay. I think. When does the next book come out?!

Recommendation: If you can stand it, wait to read this one until the next one comes out, someday. Otherwise, read it now!

Rating: 9/10

Hollow Earth, by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Hollow EarthI may have mentioned before in this space a love of things Doctor Who and Torchwood. Not an unhealthy obsession, like some people I know, but enough of one that when I saw a book partially written by Captain Jack come into my library, I mean, I checked it out immediately.

That book was Bone Quill, the second in this Hollow Earth series, because of course it was, and of course again we didn’t have the first book in my library so I made my home library bring it to me. Libraries are awesome, guys.

Also awesome? This book.

In the world of this story, there are people called Animare who can draw things and make them come to life through the wonders of imagination and also people called Guardians who have super-empathic abilities that allow them to keep the Animare from going overboard with the redrawing life thing. These two sets of people are not supposed to make babies with each other, but of course babies were made, and those twins are our fine protagonists. They have abilities of both Guardians and Animare, and are actually kind of better at both than they should be, and the head of the Council of Fancy People Who Make the Rules (and some other members, but mostly the head dude) would really like them both to be stopped before they can be way too awesome.

So the twins and their mother run off to Scotland and the twins learn about their powers and how to really use them and bad people come and bad people are stopped (spoiler?). There are some pretty awesome action scenes involving animated Scotland-parts and drawings made in minds rather than on paper and all that fantasy stuff is pretty awesome.

But I think what I liked best about the book was the way the Barrowmans made all the kids (the twins and the friend they pick up) into real kids — feeling smart, being stupid, and understanding that both of those states can coexist. They even acknowledge that adults sometimes know what they’re doing, and in fact call for help when things get dangerous! I’ve read so many orphan or pseudo-orphan stories where the kids are 2000 percent smarter than the adults around them, and those can be awesome, but it’s great to see a story in which children are loved and cared for and still go out and defeat bad guys (with help).

I will definitely be reading Bone Quill sometime before the library wants it back, and then probably pining away for the third book as soon as I’m done!

Recommendation: For fans of fantasy and heroic kids and art and Scotland.

Rating: 9/10