Friday, June 28, 2013

Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry (2012)

Echo Emerson doesn't remember the night her life changed. She wears long sleeves and gloves to hide the scars on her arms and can't sleep through the night, but her memories of what happened between her and her mother are unreachable. Noah Hutchins lost both his parents in a fire and lives in foster care, separated from his younger brothers. He'll do anything to get them back. Part of his fight for custody means becoming a more responsible person and better student. His counselor sets him up with a tutor. Her name is Echo. The pair are drawn powerfully to one another. But can they get past their problems and actually be good for each other?

I'm not going to lie: this is like reading a self-published book, despite being issued by Harlequin Teen. The writing is fairly terrible, clunky and awkward. McGarry tries really hard with her metaphors, and it shows. "I waited for my pulse to stop beating my veins like a gang initiation..." What does that even mean? In one scene she becomes upset and ill and runs to the bathroom. "The mirror revealed a nightmare." Being sweaty and shaking is a nightmare to someone whose mother once tried to kill her? The gross exaggerations are pretty hard to swallow. As is the overuse of "siren" and "nymph" which Noah uses to describe Echo, words which seem hardly to apply to her at all. I cringed a lot while reading this book.

BUT. I really liked Echo and Noah a lot, and their story was a compelling one. Both characters were believably troubled and it was easy to see why they were attracted to each other. The kids in this book (including Noah's foster siblings, Isaiah and Beth) are real like none I've met in a young adult book before. Usually "bad kids" have been through something traumatic and are misunderstood, but at their worst are a bit sullen and uncooperative. These kids on the other hand swear, talk really crudely, smoke pot, have casual sex with people they never call again. It's fantastic. Typically if a kid is using drugs in a YA book it's because that's the focus of the book. Beth was stoned in most of her scenes, but it's beside the point, just a part of her character. (And she's fascinating, so I was happy to find out that the recently-released sequel is about her.)

Despite the amateur writing, the book's redeeming qualities outweigh its faults enough for me to give it a strong 3-star rating. The swearing and other strong language might be too much for some readers, but to me it made the characters all the more genuine. Adding another layer of depth, there's a playlist in the back of the book which I've been listening to as I type this. Bonus! If you're easily bothered by awkward writing you might struggle with Pushing the Limits, but if you can overlook that for a good story with strong troubled characters, I recommend picking this up.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell (2009)

Lexie Sinclair wants nothing more than to escape her parents' home in the English countryside. When she meets a man from London named Innes Kent, she's spurred into finally taking action. Moving to the city, Lexie's life changes...and then changes again.

A few decades later, Elina has just had a baby and she feels everything slipping away from her. She doesn't remember the birth, or her near-death, or what she was just doing a few moments ago. But just as she begins to gain a foothold again, it's her husband Ted who begins to drift away, being tugged by new memories of his past.

There is a relationship between these two couples, one best uncovered gradually as the novel progresses so I won't say more. They are very different stories too. We know from very early on that Lexie is doomed. Despite her determination to live her life the way she chooses, a shadow hangs over her from the beginning. On the other hand, Ted and Elina's life together feels a little more hopeful, though aspects of it are so uncertain.

O'Farrell describes locations in Lexie's story as they exist in the later timeline, ever urging the two stories to converge. I loved the way the story slowly unfolded, drawing the characters' lives toward their eventual intersection. It was beautiful and well-crafted and I came to care a great deal for the characters.

Ted and Elina's story is written with a hazy, dreamlike quality which perfectly captures the mood of memory loss and feelings of being unhinged. In fact, the book is chock full of gorgeous writing, with strong visual imagery. One of my favorite scenes comes near the end and describes a cafe closed up for the night, hinting at the busyness that has now ended. "As if sensing the night-time calm, the refrigerator obligingly shudders into silence." And: "A sack of coffee beans slumps, exhausted, against the counter."

Another moment she captures elegantly is when Ted considers his newborn son: "Ted cannot imagine, cannot comprehend what it is like to see the world for the first time. To have never seen a wall, a washing-line, a tree. He is momentarily filled with a kind of pity for his son. What a task lies ahead of him: to learn literally everything." The novel is full of similarly delightful descriptions, memories, or observations. If this wasn't a library book, I would have dog-eared it into literary origami.

Reading this reminded me why I so enjoyed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I'm very much looking forward to O'Farrell's brand new book, Instructions for a Heat Wave, which I'd like to think I'll read soon, but I know myself too well to make any such declarations. Still, it makes me feel good that something I'm sure is wonderful will be waiting for me when I'm ready.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Knitting

This is my first update in a while, not because I haven't been knitting but because my knitting has been uninteresting. "I got two more inches done on the body of x sweater - looks just like the previous two inches!" Nobody wants to see that.

Then earlier this week I began a new pair of socks. I had to just throw out two pairs that I refuse to darn again - as much as I liked the socks - so now I feel like I'm behind in socks. I know it's not a competition. But still.

I've had this yarn for quite a while, actually. It was from a member of my knitting group (back when I went to a knitting group) who was cleaning out her stash. I had rather forgotten I had it. I really like Regia yarn and the colorway, now that I've started knitting, looks more appealing than it does on the skein. I like the combination of grays and brick red. Or is it a dark orange? Either way it's pretty and the colors don't pool the way some yarns do. The effect is rather camouflage-like now that I look at it.

I'm using a simple pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, from the 4-stitch repeat section. It's called Openwork Rib and it's simple enough to remember so I can knit on the bus but still has a bit of visual interest. I'm dying to do another pair from Cookie A's Sock Innovation, or even one of the more complicated ones from Sensational Knitted Socks, but I'm stuck on this idea that sock knitting is for the bus and I can't do anything that involves frequently consulting a pattern because I'll get motion sickness.

Of course there's no law against knitting more than one pair of socks at a time so I could easily start another pair to work on at home, but I'm determined to finish a project before starting another new one. It certainly won't be the oft-neglected Fountain Pen Shawl. And I've temporarily put down the Humboldt Raglan after starting a sleeve and being struck with a sudden fear that I won't have enough yarn to finish the sweater. So it will have to be the Cozy V Neck Sweater, which is actually trucking along pretty well. Today I plan to bind off the body. Then it's just the sleeves and the neckline and it will be done.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Joyland by Stephen King (2013)

In the summer of 1973 Devin Jones has a broken heart and a job at an amusement park called Joyland. A few years earlier a young woman was murdered on a ride called Horror House, and the killer was never caught. But visitors sometimes report seeing the ghost of the victim, and Devin hopes he'll get to see her too. In the meantime, he's busy dressing up in a furry dog suit and entertaining toddlers while mulling over the strange predictions of park psychic Madame Fortuna. When he befriends a local mom and her sick little boy, and then begins putting together the pieces of that old murder...well, his lost love doesn't seem like much of a problem in comparison.

Published by Hard Case Crime (with that fantastic pulpy cover!) this is a bit of a departure for King. It's not horror, but it's also not a typical whodunnit. There are moments that required a suspension of disbelief, and a couple of small plot points that seemed just a tiny bit contrived, but I didn't care. Everything else was so very real.

Stephen King is just brilliant at creating characters that seem like they could walk off the page. Their insecurities, childhood memories, and fears all come together to form a person you're pretty sure you might have met. Everything about the amusement park was tangible too, right down to "the Talk," the specialized carny lingo.

Joyland is a perfect book for summer: the rides, the kite-flying, the horrible carnival food, the way that Devin was on vacation from his real life. And though it wasn't scary, I found it wonderfully suspenseful. I'm sure it would be great any time of year, but I'm so glad I read it now. In addition to its other summery qualities it's short and paperback, making it a great choice to take to the beach or on vacation.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bleakly Hall

Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo (2011)

After the Great War, Nurse Montgomery (known as Monty) is reunited with wartime friend Ada at Bleakly Hall, a strange hydropathic hospital (or is it a hotel? It's hard to tell) where older people come to partake of the curative waters in the form of various types of baths ("douches") and other water therapy. The hall is crumbling, the pipes groan and sputter noisily, and business is failing. Co-owner Grier Blackwood hopes to improve the popularity through advertising geared towards younger folk and by changing some of the long-standing rules and traditions of Bleakly. Monty has come for quite different reasons though; she is tracking down Captain Foxley, who she considers responsible for a close friend's death during the war.

Monty is brisk and business-like, just the sensible kind of person to get to the bottom of trouble and get everything sorted out. When it comes to Captain Foxley, Monty definitely has blinders on and is so focused on revenge she has a hard time seeing the consequences of her actions. Her presence at Bleakly solves problems and stirs up trouble in equal measure.

It's not entirely her fault however, thanks to an array of darkly comical and troubled characters whose eccentricities in some cases border on mental illness. Their delightful foibles lent the novel a bit of a slapstick air, but in the best way possible. I pictured most of it as a hilarious and quirky dark comedy film. In one especially memorable scene Bleakly staff shuffled guests outside and down the hill to the pump house to indulge in fortifying glasses of Lady Beaton water, one of several varieties available from their special pumps. I could see the ragtag group traveling in bath chairs or walking arm in arm for support, probably wearing pajamas and robes, walking past the crumbling moss-covered houses of the village. Bleakly Hall's structure is a character itself with it's groaning pipes and mysterious stenches, an unsettling and ominous backdrop looming over its staff and guests.

Of course, underlying the frequently lighthearted tone are fairly serious themes and issues. Many of the characters, including the Blackwood brothers, were actively involved in the Great War and were haunted by memories of their time at the front and the people they lost there. Foxley was also a serial womanizer, leaving a trail of heartbreak and ruined lives in his wake, and the reason for his apparently flip attitude about this is fairly horrific. But tempered with the author's colorful writing style and gift for comedy, it became fun and engaging.

Much like di Rollo's A Proper Education for Girls, this novel had a pronounced feminist slant. It wasn't preachy or too obvious, just great strong female characters who know what they want and aren't afraid to go after it. They stand up for each other as well as for themselves, and I found their supportive friendships touching as well as empowering.

I loved A Proper Education for Girls and was very excited when I heard that di Rollo had another book. Alas, this one is unavailable in the US. I ordered it from Amazon UK, along with a couple others that I can't get here. So if you're in the US and want to read it, you may have tough time unless you're willing to pay for international shipping. (Of course, if you know me personally I'd be happy to let you read my copy.) For me, it was well worth ordering from afar. And isn't the cover art fantastic? I love the shadowy gothic style, which is perfectly suited to the story.

This author hasn't gotten a lot of attention (at least not here in the US) despite the great reviews her books earn, and I can't imagine why. I love her unique tone and style and I hope she keeps writing for years to come.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Way of the Dog

The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage (2013)

Again, Sam Savage has created a character that lives and breathes and has thrust the reader inside of his head to experience his unpleasant life. This time it's Harold Nivenson, once a minor painter and art collector, now elderly and falling further into decline after losing his dog Roy. Nivenson writes obsessively on index cards or scraps of paper which he used to file away in an orderly fashion but now just stacks into piles until later throwing them away. He spies on his neighbors from the window and reminisces about his past life as his condition, and that of his house, continue to deteriorate.

In his youth, Harold Nivenson was friends with an artist named Peter Meininger. Nivenson tried to emulate him as much as possible before eventually growing to hate him. Meininger is now dead but their rivalry is kept alive in part by the large collection of his paintings staring down from the walls of the house. The house itself has become oppressive; bought hopefully using inherited money, it once sat in a bohemian neighborhood and was filled with artists and their ilk. But Nivenson never completed his remodeling plans, the neighborhood has changed, and he remains alone and trapped.

In fact, Nivenson is not completely alone. His son arrives, a distant figure who Nivenson calls Alfie despite the fact that his name is actually Sidney. A woman named Moll moves in to take care of Nivenson, though she is an older lady herself. Their relationship is only revealed late in the book. Nivenson is resentful towards both Moll and Alfie, interlopers invading his privacy, and bringing along strangers who traipse through the house invading his solitude.

Like Edna in Glass and Andrew in The Cry of the Sloth, Harold Nivenson is an unappealing person but he is by far the most relatable. Despite his repeated claims of insanity, Nivenson is actually the most sane of Savage's characters. He is someone we may all become someday; elderly and declining, barely able to get around and not doing a great job of taking care of himself. He talks of suicide, though carrying it out seems unlikely. His isolation is only increased by the gentrification of his neighborhood, which is slowly transforming into a place he doesn't recognize.

I think it's because this story could so easily be one's own life that it's not as funny as the other two books I mentioned. But true to his style, Savage employs wonderful little nuggets that I marked throughout the book, clever turns of phrase, and occasional bits of lucid wisdom. In considering the different ways in which a single event could be described Nivenson observes, "There is no necessary connection between the events of a life and the lies that recount them."

Nivenson now feels like an outsider on his own street, though he has lived there longer than his neighbors. One of my favorite passages highlights how strange they are to him:

"Weekday mornings the neighborhood is at its most bizarre and alienating, as if someone has kicked an anthill. They pour from the nest, rushing and tumbling into the street, mandibles masticating the last crumbs of breakfast, antennae waving."

I think it is the realism of this book that makes it my least favorite by Savage, which is completely unfair. It's just as well-written, the protagonist just as real, but it's unpleasant to be forced to confront old age and poor health. And Nivenson is so unhappy about a lot of choices in his life, feels like a failure in many ways, and has isolated himself from everyone around him. It's so easy to imagine becoming him. Which, of course, is exactly the beauty of the novel.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (2012)

Just hours before her parents' death, Cameron Post was kissing a girl. Upon hearing the news of their car crash, her first thought was relief that they'd never know what she had done. Everything in Cameron's life changed when her parents died. She had to live with her religious Aunt Ruth who dragged her along to church, and the rest of the time she just rented movies and watched them alone in her room while working on a weirdly artistic dollhouse. Miles City, Montana is not the best place to be a lesbian so Cameron continued to keep a low profile until she became helplessly drawn to beautiful straight girl, Coley Taylor. It's too good to be true when Cameron and Coley finally progress beyond friendship and next thing Cameron knows, she's being sent away to God's Promise, a school intended to cure kids of their "unhealthy desires."

It would be hard not to sympathize with Cameron after all she's gone through, but she's also an incredibly genuine character in many ways. She's wonderfully imperfect: she smokes pot, shoplifts, and says "fuck" a lot. Her sexual experiences are honestly rendered with hesitation, awkwardness, and guilt. Her feelings are channeled into her childhood dollhouse which she began decorating after her parents' death. She uses various detritus in her life in unusual ways, such as decoupaging the mother and father figures with newspaper clippings about her parents' car accident. Her narrative voice is honest and matter-of-fact.

I think one of my favorite parts of the book is early on, just after her parents are killed. Cameron rents the movie Beaches because she remembers that a young girl's mother dies, and she needs cues about how she should act. Heartbreaking! But so believable: we do expect certain things to come with grief, and they don't always. Isn't it nuts that when we're dealing with tragedy, we are so concerned with our outward appearances? But that's just one of many ways in which this story, and Cameron Post, are so real.

But Cameron isn't the only well-rendered character in the book. Her friend Lindsey is sort of her lesbian mentor, as she lives in a more accepting environment and is attuned to the gay community. She is also pretty militant and lectures Cameron about various issues; Cameron frequently hears Lindsey's voice in her head when she's dealing with something she knows Lindsey would have an opinion about. Often she ignores that voice. Jane is her first friend at God's Promise, and has a colorful background having been raised in a commune (something of which school leaders definitely disapprove.) She has a prosthetic leg in which she hides a stash of the pot she grows nearby. Completing the friendship trio is Adam, a Native American who says he is not gay, but is a winkte or "two-souls person," a special designation usually revered in his culture. I really enjoyed all of Cameron's relationships and her complicated feelings about the people in her life.

Another of my favorite aspects of this book is how the leaders at God's Promise are portrayed. It would have been easy to make them all villains for wanting these kids to change something unchangeable about themselves, but Danforth didn't do that. Pastor Rick was a truly likable guy who, though misguided, absolutely believed in what he was teaching and sincerely cared about these kids. With all the political rhetoric thrown around, it can be difficult to remember that sometimes people who believe things you find abhorrent may still be nice people. They are multi-dimensional just like all of us. That was captured very well here.

Ultimately, this novel is less about Cameron's experiences at God's Promise than her unresolved feelings about her parents' deaths. Watching her grow as a person throughout the book and find peace within herself was much more important than whether or not she was able to get away from her oppressive school environment. A little meatier and sophisticated than a lot of young adult fiction, I would think this would appeal more to older teens, but it's also a great crossover title for adults. I'm glad it's a book group pick because I'm really looking forward to discussing some of these things with other people, and hearing what they noticed that I may have missed. I could continue to go on and on about this book - there's so much to discuss and to love. But all I really need to say is this: read it. You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Storm Front

Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000), narrated by James Marsters

In this first volume of the Dresden Files, we meet professional wizard Harry Dresden. He's sort of a magical private investigator, hired by private clients but also a consultant with local police. In Storm Front the police asked him to look at a crime scene with some very suspicious elements. It's a double-murder in which the victims' hearts seem to have exploded from their chests in a way that medicine cannot explain. But Harry can, and soon he is in grave danger from the same perpetrators.

Urban fantasy isn't a genre I usually gravitate towards, but I was curious about this series because of it's popularity. When I saw that it was narrated by James Marsters, who many of us know from his role as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was even more intrigued. Disappointingly, he didn't speak in a British accent. Nonetheless I thought his performance was excellent. Some reviewers disliked the editing on the audiobook, because it caught a lot of noises that are usually removed, like sighing and swallowing and whatnot. But to me, it just felt like Marsters was in the room with me, personally telling me this story. And I really like him, so that's an enticing thought. I liked how he read Harry Dresden, capturing his feelings from his dry humor to exhaustion and fear. I don't think I would have liked the book as much had I just read it.

The story was well-crafted enough, and I liked it about how I like Janet Evanovich's crime series. Just fun stories that entertain me on a commute, but that I don't really think about after they have ended. But that's just my personal taste - I liked the story and liked Harry Dresden as a character, it's just not really the sort of book I'm into. If you like urban fantasy with crime and mystery elements though, I recommend trying it out.