Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book 23 – The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins

I was already curious about The Hunger Games when I revisited an old YA PA novel I had liked as a teen, The City, Not Long After.  I had this notion that today's YA PA would ramp up on the violence and sex.  Thankfully, the violence was not as gratuitous as I was afraid it might be, and there was zero sex, let alone romance.

During our vacay, Olman spotted a hardcover copy of THG at our first B&B and promptly read it.  So he gave me the heads up that it was going to be a quick and addictive read thanks to the tight narrative, efficient pacing and generous amount of action.  Ingredients for the perfect beach novel! The only thing that annoyed me was how unrealistically naive the awkwardly named Katniss was about the opposite sex.  Naïve to the point of daftness. 

Though I appreciate Katniss as a strong and self-reliant teenage girl who taught herself to hunt (unlike the lame, milktoast Bella Swan from Twilight) and understand that she may have some trust issues since her mother went catatonic after her father died, but does the same intelligence, cunning and intuition she uses for hunting game just automatically switched off when it comes to reading guys?  Katniss' innocence and convenient obliviousness in matters of attraction is simply too trite for my liking.

Though I’m looking forward to the movie adaptation with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, I don’t have a strong compulsion to check out the sequels (unless an available copy magically lands on my lap, like it practically did with the first).  At least we have continued the tradition of leaving THG at a B&B in Lunenberg (the lovely Pelham House where resides two friendly ginger cats and an English Golden named Drum).

Since I still have a few reviews to hammer out, and I pretty much feel the same way as Olman (I also read it right after he did), I’m going to let Olman’s review speak for the both of us!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book 22 - The Outlander

By Gil Adamson

In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand.

The blurb alone had captured my fancy so I promptly made it one of my birthday requests (thanks bro!). Then I saved it to bring along for our summer trip to the Maritimes. It made a great vacation book: it had a nicely paced story, and was quite beautifully written too, with a nice balance between literary reflection and almost pulpy action.

A minor annoyance was the tiresome literary device of “the slow reveal”. In the beginning, the reader is purposely left ignorant of the events causing the widow to flee from her pursuers. As the story progresses, you learn that the two brothers are hunting their sister-in-law because she had allegedly murdered her husband in cold blood. More gets revealed -- little by little -- the events leading up to “the big trigger” – the day Mary goes ballistic and shoots her husband to death. I suppose the device is useful in mixing things up, every so often providing little breaks from the present narrative as we flash back to Mary’s past, so I can see why Adamson relied on it (like Sarah Waters did for The Night Watch). But I don’t think it would’ve detracted from the novel if I had known sooner either.

There was also the rather self-conscious habit of referring to Mary as “the widow”. Adamson did such a good job in fleshing out the character of Mary Boulton, that calling her the widow all the time kind of reduces her to a caricature or symbol. Quite a few other reviewers on Goodreads remarked on this too, so I wasn’t alone. There was also a decent love story woven in. After Mary ran to the hills (the Rockies) and after several days in the wilderness is left starved and exhausted, she was rescued by a fellow fugitive William Morleand, aka the Ridgerunner. I won’t reveal much further except this amusing quote from a Q&Q review:

A somewhat unbelievable romantic interlude ensues – can you imagine what the Ridgerunner must smell like after nine years of camping out in the Rockies?

But these are only trifling complaints for me since the novel is really quite good overall with many things I appreciated, like Adamson’s descriptions of character, perspective and place. I really felt like I was right there when Mary was lost in the mountains. I once spent a sleepless night camping alone on a meadow in Mount Seven (Golden, BC). I had never experienced that before, alone inside a pitch-black tent listening to constant rustling sounds from various creatures of the night. This passage totally reminded me of that:

She rested that dusk and woke later to find all light erased. The night was so dark she thought something stood between her eyes and the rest of the world. Blindness could not be this complete. Nothing but the sound of wind through trees. Somewhere to her left, the breathing horse. And high above, the slow funhouse creaking of pine branches. A blessing of her young life had been the fact that she remained more afraid of her own mind than of the dark. In fact, she loved the night. Still, here among the trees there was the call of unknown things. Small scrounging sounds to the left…or in front?

As a Quill and Quire reviewer notes:

…What is interesting about the book… is the fact that most of the characters come from well-heeled backgrounds (the brothers are always described in their “fine black boots”) and now find themselves battling the elements in one of the most forbidding environments on Earth. This is what continues to give Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush such power, and Adamson’s description of Mary’s upbringing strikes a similar note: “a mire of useless things: sonatas and études; the art of a good menu; trousseaux … Bedtime at nine … Alabaster skin and parasols.” These are the items that run through her mind as she tries to puzzle out which alpine plants will keep her from starvation and which will kill her instantly.

I also appreciated the clever yet thoughtful way Adamson fleshed out William Moreland’s character by having Mary sneak a peak inside his notebook while he’s away hunting:

…A strange picture of this man’s life formed in her mind out of these glimpses.

He was soft of heart: “This evening I watched the thick beautiful green mountains surrounding the Canyon Station.” He wrote humourously about God: “The Great Elementary Director has spent almost twenty-eight days amusing himself by way of creating misery for earthly humans. I for one would almost think he had created a switch that would alternate from rain to snow.” And it seemed he had lived lately in empty ranger stations and observation towers: “…the observer feels as if they were becoming strangely intoxicated by the airy stimulants evaporating from such a beautiful nature-created scene.”

Here was a man who suffered no loneliness, who spent his days as he wished…

Most of all, I appreciated Adamson’s deft approach to the theme of being a woman in a man’s world and making it work with an engaging narrative. Mary is intelligent and innately unconventional, who happens to have the misfortune of being an uneducated woman at the turn of the 20th century, struggling with her new role as a young wife to an ungrateful pioneer husband:

…for it was much his usual habit: him watching her struggle to do the most basic things a wife must do, dissatisfaction written all over him. Her grandmother would have blamed her. She was a poor domestic student – in her ineptitude. Mary brought censure upon herself. Never mind that she was barely nineteen, or that all her training had been for a different kind of life. There was, she believed, something about her, or in her, that bred dissatisfaction. She remembered her grandmother saying to her, “You must stop being such a gloomy child. Can you not be pretty inside as well?"

To summarize, The Outlander was a very enjoyable read. I don’t understand some of the complaints about the various plot improbabilities, which is likely due to the fact that The Outlander is published by the prestigious House of Anansi Press (we're talking CanLit here, people). But since when did Canadian novels have to be all realistic, gloomy and unexciting? Can they not have some of those lurid tropes of genre fiction, like nail-biting action, melodrama and romance? For “contemporary literature”, I think Adamson did a wonderful job of creating a nice balance between the two.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book 21 – Amnesia Moon

By Jonathan Lethem

Somnambulist’s very favourable review spurred me to read Lethem’s take on post-apoca sci-fi. I loved Motherless Brooklyn and enjoyed Fortress of Solitude, so chances were good that I’d like Amnesia Moon. Instead I found it to be an unsatisfying read, due to some boring segments and an annoyingly deliberate vagueness about the events that led to the demise of American civilization as we know it.

Some mysterious apocalyptic event had caused people to lose their memory and identity. Depending on where you’re from, there’s a different interpretation of what happened, so the event is only referred to as “the change”, or “the disaster”, or “the war”. But probably the most accurate is “the break” because at some point, reality got ruptured. What people used to know as reality was replaced by dreams… someone else’s dream. The dreamers impose their dreams on everyone else around him or her, because everyone else is merely a receiver.

To paraphrase Somnambulist, the dreamers use their power to alter realities, change memory, and control people. Each place uses this function in different ways to establish tyrannical control. Each place has only one dreamer, so there are pockets of different realities all over what used to be the American landscape. A pretty neato concept, really. The only problem is I’m just not sure if I liked the way Lethem executed it. I had gone into this novel not knowing anything about it, but I think if I had an idea of what the concept was, I would've been less confounded from the start. In any case, if you’re interested in reading this book, and want to be kept in the dark, read no further as there will be SPOILERS ahead.

Somewhere in Little America (probably the Midwest), a guy named Chaos is having conflicts with the local dreamer, Kellogg, and soon escapes the town of Hatfork (along with a hirsute female adolescent companion named Melinda) on a search for truth and self (not necessarily in that order). People he meets, he asks them what really happened, but they give their own vague spin on it, because nobody really knows. There are a lot of “I don’t knows” or “There’s a lot I don’t remember. Or understand.” The best answer by far: “It’s like a jump cut in a movie. Everyone is missing something.”

If I had to sum up the premise of Amnesia Moon, it’s about a guy with amnesia taking an acid, I mean, road trip out west through a dream-induced post-apocalyptic America. Somewhere in the Rockies, he gets lost in a land of opaque green mist and ends up inside a sterile complex populated white-suited bureaucrats and a pissed off dream-lady who tells him to move on. Then he ends up in a strange town called Vacaville where all the citizens have to move house twice a week and work a different job each day in order to test their luck. Instead of invasive dreams, the government bureacrats produce, star in and broadcast TV shows that the citizens are forced to watch (kind of like the CBC!). There he meets Edie, a young mother struggling to conform to Vacaville’s weird spin on dystopian society.

Then an old friend of Chaos named Fault shows up from San Francisco because he was able to “tune into” Chaos’ dreams. Edie agrees to look after Melinda while Chaos (now also known by his previous name Everett) continues his journey to San Francisco where he kinda sorta gets some answers. For instance, Chaos/Everett discovers he’s actually a powerful dreamer, he’s just been repressing his ability. Then he realizes that he was partly, if not totally, responsible for “the break” which all started in San Francisco (from what I can glean from the vague dialogue)! At some point, Chaos/Everett realizes that when he thought he had escaped from Hatfork to go west, he was actually going back to the place he originally ran away from!

Even though the novel was slim, I didn’t find the story structure very tight or cohesive. I found out later that the loose structure was likely due to the fact that Lethem cobbled together a novel from several of his unpublished short stories, which are all influenced in various degrees by Philip K Dick.

This is not to say I didn't like the book, as there were a number of cool and humourous moments in the story. Like how Hatfork was described as a bit of a shithole town, even in post-apoca standards:

Nobody went this way anymore because since the war, Hatfork was a sick town. Full of mutants and sexual deviants… Hatfork was a hairy town. Every woman from Hatfork he’d seen undressed—and he’d seen a few—had hair where she shouldn’t.

Or when Chaos and Melinda are lost in the land of green mist and run into a hippie who exclaims:

“Hey! Wow! What are you cats doing out here? … This is like, nowhere, you know. What, did you just come out of the Emerald City? Hey, that is one a hairy chick, man.”

Or when Chaos, in order to talk to his old friend, Cale, has to inject him like a drug. Or when Chaos is having another one of his rambling conversations with Kellogg, who I kind of picture as Jeff Bridges vis-a-vis The Dude:

“… That’s the way it has to be for you. You’ll always be living in an FSR… Finite Subjective Reality... You go creating a little area of control around you, until you bump into the next guy with his. A little sphere of reality and unreality, sanity and insanity, whatever you pull together. There’s no hope of sorting it out. That’s the way you live. FSR.”

Even though I haven’t read a lot of Philip K Dick, his stylistic tropes are easily recognizable in Amnesia Moon. I think if you’re already familiar with the work of PK Dick, this would make a much more rewarding read. As it stands, I only found this novel to be mildly amusing at best.

Here's another review which expressed how I felt.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Book 20 – Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters

"Fancies, Mrs. Rivers. If you might only hear yourself! Terrible plots? Laughing villains? Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad? The stuff of lurid fiction! We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy."

Sarah Waters first came on the scene with her critically acclaimed “lesbo Victorian romps” such as Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, which isn’t exactly fair, as Waters is a gifted writer of amazing range who has since expanded her repertoire to include gothic ghost stories and WWII fiction. My first introduction was a later work, The Night Watch , which I thought was beautifully written but had a rather disappointingly lackluster storyline. I’m glad I gave her early work a chance since Fingersmith is so far the best book I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it for both male and female readers! As the quote suggests, it has everything you could hope for in a Victorian period novel: an intricate plot, cunning thieves, unexpected villains, hapless yet intrepid heroines, and hot lesbian sex! And Waters’ wonderful writing elevates Fingersmith from being mere “lurid fiction”.

The novel begins in the London Borough in 1862. Sue Trinder grew up in a house of thieves run by Mrs Sucksby, who sells orphaned babies, and Mr. Ibbs, who deals with “the passage of poke”. Even though Sue was one of many dozens of orphaned infants that passed through the house on Lant Street, for whatever reason, Mrs Sucksy kept Sue to raise as her own. Like her adopted household, Sue became a fingersmith, which is basically Borough code for thief. One night, a man known only as Gentleman visits Mrs Suckby with a scheme of a lifetime. Before I go on, check out Waters’ introduction of this key character and how she captures his whole life history in just a handful of sentences via Sue’s narration:

We called him Gentleman, because he really was a gent—had been, he said, to a real gent’s school, and had a father and mother and a sister—all swells—whose heart he had just about broke. He had had money once, and lost it all gambling; his pa said he should never have another cent of the family fortune; and so he was obliged to get money the old-fashioned way, by thievery and dodging. He took to the life so well, however, we all said there must have been bad blood way back in that family, that had all come out in him… Mostly, however, he worked as a confidence-man, and as a sharper at the grand casinos—for of course, he could mix with Society, and seem honest as the rest. The ladies especially would go quite wild for him. He had three times been nearly married to some rich heiress, but every time the father in the case had grown suspicious and the deal had fallen through. He had ruined many people by selling them stock from counterfeit banks. He was handsome as a plum, and Mrs. Sucksby fairly doted on him. He came to Lant Street about once a year, bringing poke to Mr Ibbs, and picking up bad coin, cautions, and tips.

Not surprisingly, Gentleman has discovered another heiress to pounce on, but this one’s different. Maud Lilly was raised by kindly nurses in the insane asylum where her mother was committed. When she was left orphaned at 11 years old, her uncle claimed and brought her to live at Briar Estate. Unfortunately, her uncle is a miserly and obsessive book collector, bent only on molding Maud as his personal assistant for the sole purpose of cataloging his vast library of rare books. Confined to Briar Mansion and its grounds, Maud is granted barely any freedom.

Through contacts of his own, Gentleman finds out that Maud has a sweet inheritance which she can only access if she gets married. And of course, Uncle Lilly would never let his niece marry, not when she is destined to be his personal slave! But clever Gentleman is able to wrangle a temporary position helping Mr Lilly in the framing of his illustrations. Clearly, Maud is the perfect target for the perfect con – an heiress who is not only a simple naïf, but desperate to escape her situation. The only catch is that Gentleman must watch himself when interacting with Maud because of her maid, Agnes. This is where Sue comes in. If Gentleman can get rid of Agnes, he can recommend Sue to become Maud’s maid, and then Sue can aid Gentleman in making Maud fall in love with him and accept his inevitable marriage proposal. And of course, Sue will get a nice cut of the inheritance money.

Though Sue dreams of one day landing her fortune, she isn’t completely a cold-hearted Borough thief either. When she first meets Maud, Sue is not quite sure what to make of her mistress, but soon feels rather sorry for her:

She was certainly, then, what you would call original. But was she mad, or even half-way simple, as Gentleman said at Lant Street? I did not think so, then. I thought her only pretty lonely, and pretty bookish and bored—as who wouldn’t be, in a house like that?

And the more Sue spends time with Maud as her maid, the more she begins to develop feelings for her. Ooh, dearie me!

This premise in itself would make an interesting plot-line, but Waters’ really goes all out and takes this premise to the next level and then the next. Before you know it, you’re sucked into this almost 600-page page-turner and when it’s all over, you just can't believe it and try to read about it on the internets and discover there is also a BBC production, and so you acquire it and immediately watch it and then feel incomplete and dissatisfied because the adaptation barely captures the nuances and complexities of Waters’ brilliant novel.

Take for example when Sue infiltrates the Briar household as Maud’s maid how she quickly observes that the servants are no better than her fellow Borough thieves:

That’s like a servant. A servant says, ‘All for my master,’ and means, ‘All for myself’. It’s the two-facedness of it that I can’t bear. At Briar, they were all on the dodge in one way or another, but all over sneaking little matters that would have put a real thief to the blush—such as, holding off the fat from Mr Lilly’s gravy to sell on the quiet to the butcher’s boy; which is what Mrs Cakebread did. Or, pulling the pearl buttons from Maud’s chemises, and keeping them, and saying they were lost; which is what Margaret did. I had them all worked out, after three days’ watching. I might have been Mrs Suckby’s own daughter after all. Mr Way, now: he had a mark on the side of his nose—in the Borough we should have called it a ginbud. And how do you think he got that, in a place like his? He had the key to Mr Lilly’s cellar, on a chain. You never saw such a shine as that key had on it!

Here’s a review that perfectly summarizes what makes Fingersmith such a great read:

In Fingersmith, the approach to the truth is so convoluted that appearances in one case have pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. On top of the entangled fate of the two orphaned women, Waters surrounds their lives with characters who are unforgettable—neither wholly good nor evil. Whether it is Mr. Ibbs’ dealing with pickpockets for the stolen goods, Mrs. Sucksby’s unlicensed nursing of orphaned infants, Sue’s being part of the scam to make her fortune, the intention is to amount some good. Their actions often display a mix of self-interest and surprising altruism. Good to the last page.

Indeed, there is hardly a dull or insincere moment in this novel. Can’t recommend this book highly enough.