Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

I think everyone is familiar with this classic story of a high school outcast using the powers of her mind to get back at those who have bullied her too many times. In high school I read Carrie at least a handful of times and have always remembered that famous shower scene vividly. I loved everything by Stephen King (I grew up in Maine, after all) but kept coming back to this one. It's now been over twenty years since I last read it, although not long ago I finally saw the movie. I was afraid a movie that old wouldn't stand up over time (I was disappointed when I finally saw "Children of the Corn" a few years ago) but I enjoyed it and found Carrie's mother perfectly terrifying, even more so than I remember from the book.

Reading it again after all this time was a lot of fun. First, it really brought home the degree to which Stephen King's writing has gotten more sophisticated. Carrie is character-driven for sure, but nobody is fleshed out as much as in his more recent books. It's forgivable though, because it's just such a great story.

More importantly, it holds up over time and is probably the best book about bullying EVER. It was written way before bullying became the hot issue it is today and I think it's a lot better than recent books I've read on that theme. Carrie's classmates are wonderfully complicated, some clearly bullies and others just going along with the crowd. Sue Snell is an incredibly realistic character - as you may remember she is the one who felt terrible after the whole "plug it up" incident in the locker room, and convinced her boyfriend to ask Carrie to prom. He, too, was pretty nice about the whole thing and sympathetic to Carrie. But then of course the pig blood happened and all his and Sue's efforts were for naught.

I remembered Carrie's mother as being fanatically religious and it was only upon this rereading that I realized she wasn't so much religious as she was a raving lunatic. I mean, Margaret White thought that sex even within marriage was a horrible sin. No church on earth would condone this woman's views.

Had this been written more recently, King surely would have fleshed out Margaret White's background more and dwelled upon the confining nature of Carrie's life in that household, but we got enough of it for the story to be effective. I had forgotten that the novel was structured to include excerpts from some fake books about the incidents of Prom Night and about Carrie's life, so that was fun to rediscover. Although Carrie was written in the late 70s (and rescued from the trash by Tabitha King) it is a timeless story that is still good and will hold up for years to come.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Tea Rose

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (2002)

In 1888 in Whitechapel lives a young woman named Fiona Finnegan. Her family doesn't have much, but they're happy. Fiona is looking forward to marrying her childhood sweetheart Joe Bristow, who lives just down the road. But trouble is brewing in London. The unions are stirring up unrest in underpaid workers like Fiona and her family, and a man known only as Jack the Ripper is murdering prostitutes. Just when she's on the verge adulthood and marriage, events converge to rip from Fiona everything she found worth living for. Soon she finds herself on a ship to New York where she plans to start a new life, but she won't forget the past and everything she has lost.

There are so many good things in this novel that I hardly know where to begin. Let's start with the setting: Victorian London. That's all I really need to make me happy, but Donnelly writes about it in such lucid detail I felt completely transported. I was reminded of Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, that's how good it was. Fiona worked in a tea factory, her beau in a vegetable market, and the details of their work and home lives were described enough to give you a real sense of what it was like - the sights, smells, and tastes - without bogging you down too much. Plus, Jack the Ripper!

Fiona is now one of my favorite characters. I always like a headstrong, independent woman ahead of her time and she is definitely that. Amazingly strong and resourceful, Fiona endured a great deal of tragedy and rose above it, using her grief and anger to fuel her drive to success. Watching her turn around her uncle's business in New York before opening up her own was incredibly satisfying. Another favorite character was Nicholas Soames, who Fiona befriends on the ship from London. I don't know how realistic it is that she is so accepting of a gay man in that time period, but I enjoyed their close friendship a great deal. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that it became very touching and, dare I say it, poignant.

There is just so much more here, in terms of plot and characters, but I don't want to reveal too much because it's just so wonderful to experience it all unfolding. It's amazing that it all takes place in a ten-year period. Fiona must be exhausted. It's a long book too - my copy is around 550 pages. But unlike some long books I've read, I really savored every bit of it and even feel happy that there are two sequels. I probably won't get to them right away, but I will at some point. I picked this for the Staff Picks Book Group at my library and can't wait to hear what everyone else thinks of it.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Don't Breathe a Word

Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon (2011), narrated by Lily Rains

Fifteen years ago, a little girl named Lisa was convinced there were fairies living in the woods nearby. One day she ran away into the woods to meet the king of the fairies and never came back. Now, her brother Sam's girlfriend received a mysterious phone call and they wonder if Lisa has come back. But everyone from the past who is suddenly showing up seems to be hiding something. Who is this mysterious fairy king that everyone is so afraid of? And what really happened to Lisa?

I don't even know where to start with this. I guess by admitting that I never should have picked up this book in the first place. I knew from the beginning that this book was about either a) fairies, or b) adults who believe in fairies. Neither of those was likely to end well. I've read books with far-out supernatural elements that I've liked but in this case, once I started reading I didn't know if I was looking for a real-world explanation or if I needed to suspend my disbelief for an actual fairy story. It was just not a good choice for me, so take this all with a grain of salt.

Even aside from the fairy aspects, the story rather fell flat for me. It was told primarily from Sam's girlfriend Phoebe's point of view, alternated with flashbacks from Lisa's story fifteen years ago. Lisa was just a kid - I think she was twelve - and her friends were all around that age and mean to each other, which is believable, but I didn't especially like any of them. In the present day story I initially liked Sam but he began being kind of a jerk. I can see why he would start pulling away from Phoebe with everything that was going on, but I didn't think that shift was developed very well. As the story progressed, it got outlandish in parts. It was totally unrealistic in ways that had nothing to do with the supernatural.

I didn't like Phoebe at all. She is a thirty-five year old woman who makes fun of her boyfriend for being vegetarian and eating organic food. She ridicules his mother's cooking as being bland because it's vegetarian. (Should I even have to point out that flavor is dependent on seasonings and flavorings rather than the presence of absence of meat? No, I should not.) Her preferred meals - and this is a woman who thinks she might be pregnant - are things like Kraft dinner and Hamburger Helper. She was also very resentful of Sam's college education. I think all this was the author's way of trying to make her seem really uneducated because she didn't go to college and I was uncomfortable with that aspect of her character. Not having gone to college doesn't make a person stupid, irresponsible, or resentful of other people's education. Some people are all of those things, but I don't see why Phoebe would be. Her character just didn't come together very well for me.

The narration was ok, but a lot of the voices were exaggerated and sounded like caricatures which made it difficult to take some of the characters seriously. Sam's cousin Evie's voice wasn't portrayed consistently.

The best part of the this book is the cover. Isn't it creepy? It really wasn't a bad premise and at times it seemed like it was going in an appealing direction, but then it would twist another way. In the end, it was exactly as wrong for me as I thought it might be when I started. I should have stopped early on, but kept up a vain hope that I'd start to like it. It's been really well reviewed elsewhere so if it interests you at all I suggest reading some of those other reviews, like the one at Forever Young Adult.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Fifth Wave

The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey (2013)

The first wave shut down their lights and electronics and cars. The second wave washed away the coastal cities. The third wave brought sickness. The fourth wave taught the few survivors not to trust anyone. One of those survivors is a teenage girl named Cassie, alone with her guns, fighting to stay alive another day. When a boy named Evan Walker saves her from death she thinks maybe it's time to trust again. Or is it?

The Fifth Wave, for the most part, is very action-packed. Short chapters propel the reader forward making the book quick to devour. The majority of the story is told from Cassie's perspective, but other parts focus on a soldier-in-training named Zombie, and on Cassie's little brother Sammy who was taken from her early in the story. Sammy's chapter didn't add much to the story, but I liked the back-and-forth between Cassie's and Zombie's perspectives.

Without spoiling things, I'll just say that a couple of things didn't make logical sense to me. There are things you find out, but then previous things aren't re-explained in that context so I'm not sure what to make of them. I'm not always the brightest bulb in terms of figuring things out, but this is a young adult book and I should be able to understand it. Which I guess is me saying that the writing could have been better.

I apparently never get tired of dystopias and apocalyptic stories and this falls firmly in that genre so I liked it, but it wasn't an example of the best. The premise was great. I liked the characters, the action, the tension. It wasn't the most original story ever, but in this explosion of apocalyptic fiction that's probably getting more and more difficult. As much as I enjoyed this while I was reading it, it's not really sticking with me. And that's fine. Sometimes you need the literary equivalent of a one-night stand. Which this isn't meant to be - it's the first in a series that I'm not compelled to continue.

Surprisingly, this isn't the first book I've read by Rick Yancey. Several years ago I read his memoir Confessions of a Tax Collector, and only realized partway through The Fifth Wave that it was the same author. They are completely different of course, but I liked his memoir a lot more and remembered it enough to recommend it even years later. The same won't be true for The Fifth Wave, which I'll only recommend to those who have exhausted all the better titles in the genre.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Knitting

This knitting update is long overdue. The knitting is slow and steady.

First, lo those many weeks ago, I finished the lower body of the Humboldt Raglan. Then I began a sleeve.

When I looked at the amount of yarn I had used and the amount I had left, I became afraid that I wouldn't have enough to finish the sweater. So I did what anyone would do.

I shoved it in a bag and pulled out my other sweater project. I knit a sleeve.

This one is made by picking up stitches at the armhole and continuing that way so you don't have to sew it on later. The sleeve itself will be seamed though. Last time I made this sweater I knit the sleeves in the round because that's easier but I don't know how I accomplished it. I don't have the right size needles in the correct length for magic loop, but I don't think I have the right double-pointeds either. It's a mystery. But this sweater is too hot to even think about right now.

I also finished my first Openwork Rib Sock and began the second.

This goes pretty quickly on the bus, but when I get to the parts where I need to look at instructions (like for turning the heel) I tend to set it aside for a while rather than just doing it and moving on. Hopefully I won't do that with the second sock because I'd really like to finish them and start another pair.

I haven't touched my shawl. I need to work on that soon.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

One Last Thing Before I Go

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (2012), narrated by John Shea

Silver has made a lot of mistakes in his life. A one-time rock star, he now lives in an apartment complex called the Versailles which hosts a wide array of middle-aged unattached men whose poor choices have led them here. His ex-wife, who he's never quite gotten over, is about to marry a guy who Silver likes. His eighteen-year-old daughter seems to feel only disdain for him. He's tempted to feel touched when she confides her pregnancy to him, until he realizes she chose him because she doesn't care much about his opinion. When Silver is suddenly struck down by a serious medical condition and learns that he may die, it's a catalyst to an effort to become a better person, even if that person will only be around for a short time.

I almost stopped about a half hour in because I really don't like stories about neurotic middle-aged men whose lives are a mess and who sit around leering at college girls. But I gave it a little longer and soon was quite drawn into the story.

Silver was troubled, it's true. He was in a rut, having not recovered from the end of his marriage or his career. But you get the feeling that he can do better, that there's hope for him. That may have been enough to save the story for me, but what really clinched it was the appearance of his pregnant 18-year-old daughter. Young and full of promise, having only made one real mistake so far, she was a perfect counterpoint to Silver and it was this relationship that propelled the story and made it so compelling.

I listened to this audiobook in two sittings on a long drive and it really made the trip go by faster and more pleasantly. John Shea's narration is wholly appropriate for Silver's character. His voice is a bit gravelly and took some getting used to, but he really made Silver come alive. Occasionally he sounded a bit like Casey Kasem, which is either good or bad depending on how nostalgic you feel for the glory days of American Top 40. He wasn't bad at female voices (which can be tricky for male narrators) and excelled at others such as Silver's father, an energetic rabbi who wasn't about to sit around and watch his son let himself die.

If you like male-centered domestic fiction or stories about dysfunctional families, I recommend giving this a try.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye

The Fortunes of Indigo Skye by Deb Caletti (2008)

Indigo Skye is graduating from high school soon, and she plans to continue her job as a waitress. Her friends and family don't understand why she doesn't want to go to college, but she loves waitressing and is good at it. When the mysterious Vespa Guy starts appearing at her cafe however, her job becomes even more interesting. Especially the day he leaves her a $2.5 million tip. Indigo is convinced her life will be the same - just with more money - but of course her new fortune changes everything. Or does it?

Indigo is smart and clever and her narrative voice carried the story. I loved her observations about her coworkers and the regulars at the diner, and her relationship with her family and friends. She was witty and sarcastic and that made this story very fun to read.

On the very first page Indigo declares how much you tell about a person by what they order for breakfast, citing one of the regulars as an example. After Nick's wife died, suspicious eyes turned toward him but Indigo maintains that a murderer would order something meaty. She says "I've never served anyone who's killed his wife for sure, so I don't know this for a fact, but I can tell you they wouldn't order oatmeal with raisins like Nick Harrison does. No way...Nick Harrison was cleared of any charges, and still he's destroyed. Oatmeal with raisins every day means you've lost hope." This is a gal I like spending time with.

I couldn't help but compare it to the narration of the last YA book I read, Pushing the Limits. Caletti manages to achieve what I think the other author was trying for, but instead of sounding awkward and forced it comes out in a style both effortless and natural. From a scene in an airport: "God, I hate presumptuous, overachieving appliances...My inability to control an automatic faucet has zapped my confidence, and so I sit back down in a hard plastic chair formed to the supposed contours of my body and look around for possible terrorists instead."

Aside from the fantastic narrative voice, it's also just a great premise for a story. One always hears about people who come into a lot of money and their lives are changed for the worse, and it was easy to see how that can happen. Everyone around Indigo seemed more than ready to help her spend her money - her boyfriend notably made an assumption that the money was theirs and not just hers - and she became a bit tight-fisted, hating her own reaction. But I think it's the same reaction anyone would have. During the requisite gratuitous shopping spree scene, I wanted to yell "Indigo, no! Don't spent all your money on this crap!" But she's a teenager, and it was probably what a teenager would do. It was all fascinating.

Deb Caletti has apparently written a number of young adult books, but this is the first one I've read. I hadn't even heard of her until I got this book as a gift, and that's a shame. The Fortunes of Indigo Skye even made ALA's list of Best Books for Young Adults. I can see why - what a treat!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tenth of December

Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)

This short story collection has been greatly lauded since it was published earlier this year. I try not to be drawn in by hype and almost skipped it, but remembered how much I enjoyed Saunders' book of essays The Braindead Megaphone. Indeed, I flew through this little book in a couple of days of a busy weekend. It's short but it's so easy to get sucked into his stories so I was through the book before I knew it.

The narrative voices are just amazingly real and clever, and I think that's what propelled me through this collection so quickly. It's hard to describe, but it's very conversational and entertaining and wonderfully fun.

One aspect of his essay collection that had struck me was just how creative and original his writing is, and that's true here as well. As real as the voices and characters are, there are some unexpected elements to some of the stories. "Escape from Spiderhead", which I had already read in The Best American Short Stories 2011, is a piece of science fiction but others have just elements of something that is a bit different, or off.

I think my favorite story was "The Semplica Girl Diaries," which takes place in a world that we're familiar with to a family struggling to keep up with their wealthy neighbors. But one common way to outwardly display wealth is through yard displays of something called SGs. SGs turn out to be domestic workers, immigrants from places like the Philippines and Somalia, who are strung up in arrangements in one's yard. It's justified in the same way we justify hiring women from these countries to clean our houses - their lives are better here, they really need the money to send home to their families, etc. It's a great idea for the story, but what makes it such a standout is that it's written as diary entries from the man who hires them. His struggles as a provider and a father made me sympathize with him and laugh at him at the same time.

It's difficult to write about short story collections because there are so many different stories and characters so you can't really summarize. I will say that I liked every single story in Tenth of December and that they were all very different from each other. Saunders is able to evoke a wide array of emotions in his writing, but through it all is his crazy and wonderful brand of humor. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Code Name Verity: the audiobook

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012), narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell

I just posted about this book a few months ago, so I won't go into the plot summary, but having just listened to the audio in preparation for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work I thought it merited a few more words.

Looking at my previous review I see that I almost put it down at one point which I had completely forgotten since I liked it so much in the end. I think I struggled more this time. The audio wasn't a great choice for me with this particular book, which I should have realized. There were many moments when my mind drifted and I suddenly realized I had no idea what was going on. (I'm hoping to skim through the book a bit before the discussion.)

However, none of this was the fault of the production, which was excellent. There were two narrators, both of whom did an excellent job reading. I especially enjoyed the first one, who had the most charming Scottish accent ever. Partway through the book the narrators switched because a different character tells that part of the story. It was a little hard to adjust to a new narrator but once I did, I really liked her as well.

One of my favorite little bits of the story was something I had forgotten from my initial reading. Verity's part of the story is the confession she's writing for the Nazis who have captured her, and paper is quite hard to come by so she writes on all sorts of odd scraps. At one point she must write on some pages of flute music. She explains that she is writing lightly, in pencil, between the notes in case somebody wants to play it someday. Here is a young woman who is sure she's going to be killed when she finishes her story - and she's almost done - yet she's thinking about someone later possibly wanting to use the sheet music on which she is writing. How heart-breakingly considerate!

Even upon second reading, I found this story fresh and original and was again touched by the deep and loyal friendship between the two young women brought together in wartime. This is a great crossover title that I think would have just as much (if not more) appeal to adults as to teens. It's a must for anyone who enjoys WWII-era fiction.