Audiobooks carried me through this quarter. I’ve been having some problems with my vision that makes it difficult to read at the beginning and end of the day. Without audiobooks, I’d have been deprived of one of my main sources of peace of mind.
I read twenty eight books in the quarter. As with last quarter, all but four of them were genre reads (urban fantasy, science fiction, thrillers and crime). I seem to be in need of comfort reads at the moment.
So here are the best and most disappointing of the twenty-eight.
Best Read of the Quarter
I selected Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” as my best read because it was the most pleasant surprise of the quarter.
I’d expected Stephen King to apply his story-telling skills to give me a tense story about the bad things that happen to little girls who get lost in the woods, invoking all the things that lurk in the deep dark and reminding me what it feels like to be prey. Instead, I got something quite different and wonderful, Stephen King narrowed his focus down to the internal dialogue that drives Trish, nine years old, almost ten and big for age, to persist in struggling not to die in vast Maine woods that she is alone and lost in.
In some ways, this is a book in which nothing much happens. Trish gets separated from her mother and brother and finds herself lost in the woods and does her best to find a way to walk out again. Yet, from the beginning, I kept wanting to know what happened next and by the end, I cared passionately about whether Trish would survive.
Trish is brave and resourceful and unyielding. She’s also, as she tells us from time to time, just a kid. She’s afraid. She’s furious at the unfairness of her situation. She cries. She throws tantrums. Then she persists.
The writing is wonderful, simple on the surface but with flowing rhythms beneath the surface that entrance the ear and build meanings on simple phrases until a verbal Fibonacci Sequence unfolds. Stephen King can take a radio jingle, “Who do you call when your windscreen ‘s busted” and turn it into a leitmotiv for the desire for rescue. The pace is perfectly controlled and cleverly structured around the innings of a baseball game.
I recommend the audiobook version of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”. It’s performed by Anne Heche, who does a superb job of making Trisha real and made this an even better read.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
“Isabel’s Bed” is a gentle, amusing, charter-driven read, filled with kindness and comedy that lifted my spirits.
It deals honestly but sympathetically with the story of Harriet Mahoney, a wannabe writer running for cover from a recently failed twelve-year relationship with a man she now sees has always been a jerk.
Although the story is told from Harriet’s point of view, she is one of the most ordinary and most passive characters in a novel which is dominated by colourful, larger than life people. Yet Harriet does not fade into the background or become just a cypher for observing more interesting people. In a way, the whole book is about her building a more solid understanding of herself and acting upon it.
Harriet takes refuge with Isabel, a woman who’s notoriety Harriet is unaware of when she agrees to ghostwrite her autobiography in exchange for living in Isabel’s house for a year.
Isabel is funny and smart and totally overwhelming. The dialogue in the scenes she’s in sparkles. I found her extraordinary and yet completely convincing. She is a woman who takes charge of her life and lives by her own rules. She is Harriet’s opposite and so finds Harriet novel and intriguing. The friendship that builds between the two woman is drawn with a light touch that gives it credibility and emotional value.
The way the two women approach writing Isabel’s autobiography gives some interesting sideways views into why people write and helps Harriet finally to find her way.
The ending of the novel made me smile. It was unexpected yet realistic. One of those things that makes everything click into place so that you say, “That’s so true and obvious. How did I not see that coming?”
Although the structure of “A Corner Of The Universe” creaks a little and some of the phrases verge on Hallmark niceness I still found that it raised my spirits and introduced me to memorable characters.
What I liked most about it was the curiosity, honesty and instinctive kindness of Hatty Owen, the character from whose point of view the story is told.
The action of the book is set in the summer of 1960 in the American small town of Millerton. Hattie is eleven, almost twelve, and is deeply content at the prospect of spending her summer vacation at home, amongst the people and places that she has known her whole life.
Hattie’s life is changed by the unexpected arrival of her twenty-one-year-old, mentally uncle, Adam, who Hattie had not known existed.
Adam’s illness and it’s impact on him and those around him is depicted in a deeply empathic way but is all the more disturbing for that. As Hattie becomes aware of Adam’s strange speech patterns, his manic energy, his unpredictable mood changes and the anxiety they create in those around him, she understands how isolated he is and the sense that he has of being the only alien in a world that has no home for him.
Adam’s behaviour and people^s reaction to it becomes a lever which lifts the corners of Hattie’s universe and compels her to reconsider what she knows about herself and her parents and grandparents.
I recommend this short novel to anyone who wants to spend a quiet afternoon absorbed in the life of a young girl who is exploring the nature of difference.
Best New Series of the Quarter
This quarter I completed two long-running series: Kitty Norville, werewolf and talk-show host, reached the end of her journey in “Kitty Saves The World” and Cassandra Kresnov, probably the most original killer android in the genre, reached a kind of peace with herself and her adopted home in “Originator”.
I will miss both series, but there’s always something new out there and this quarter I found two new series that seem to have real promise
I picked up “Nice Dragons Finish Last” because I was looking for some lighthearted escapism that would make me smile. Rachel Aaron’s book delivered that and a good deal more; surprisingly strong and original world-building, intriguing characters, gentle humour and some great actions scenes.
This is a book about being nice, decent, honest, trustworthy and reasonable, It is not one of those knowing, self-mocking books. It occasionally goes right up to the cliff-edge of cute but never drops into the abyss of sugary wholesomeness. Instead, it works through the idea that being nice doesn’t have to make you weak, that being fair doesn’t have to make you vulnerable and that being who you are is better than hiding from who everyone else wants you to be.
What spices all that up is that the person addicted to niceness is a dragon. Dragons don’t hold with niceness. Dragon’s are about cunning and power and strength and above all, about winning. Our hero is simply too nice to be a successful dragon, yet, if he fails to display a sufficiently draconian approach to the mission he has been given a couple of days to achieve, his mother will eat him. He teams up with a young mage, who, although she’s human, behaves much more like a dragon than he does: she’s fierce, territorial, always looking to find an angle and never backs down from anyone. Together they make the perfect odd couple.
There is a quest of a kind, labyrinthine intrigues, warring seers, hungry monsters determined to feed and lots of men with guns,
I found myself slipping more deeply into this world than I’d expected and liking the characters of dragons, even the scary or annoying ones.
I came across “The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” when I was looking for new Canadian authors to read. Alan Bradley gets great press, so I bought this book even though I was concerned that I might be getting an extended one-line joke in which an aristocratic, 1950’s stiff-upper-lip Brit attitude was made amusing by being exhibited by an eleven your old girl.
What I got was something much more complex and engaging than that. I got Flavia de Luce, a young girl with a remarkable mind and dauntless heart, who is determined to solve a murder her father has been arrested for committing.
The book is set in England in 1950. shortly after the end of the war. Eleven-year-old Flavia lives in a large and once grand Stately Home with her two older sisters who are close to each other but exclude her, her emotionally withdrawn father and no memory of Harriet, her adventurer mother who is missing, presumed dead.
The book is told entirely in the first person from Flavia’s point of view, so its success depends upon enjoying seeing through her eyes. Alan Bradley pulls this off perfectly- Flavia speaks and thinks in the over-elaborate language of an intelligent, self-educated unsocialised child, intoxicated by the complexity of the world and unblinkingly confident in her ability to master it.
Flavia has a fascination with poisons that she recognises might be considered pathological but she also knows that it is a true part of herself. When she comes across dying man in her garden and holds his head as he breathes his last, she is honest about her reaction:
“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
“The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” is a splendid detective story. Its characters and plot put Agatha Christie to shame. It evokes upper-class England in the first half of the last century deftly and simply. It unfolds the plot at just the right pace. Yet, by far the biggest achievement of the book is the gentle disclosure of the mystery of Flavia de Luce herself.
Flavia lives in an emotional desert that could crush a lesser girl. She feels that she is not loved. Her solution is to decide that she must love herself. At one point, riding her mother’s bike, that Flavia restored and rechristened as Gladys, at great speed, she gives way to joy, thinking:
“I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did. “All hail Flavia! Flavia forever!” I shouted, as Gladys and I sped through the Mulford Gates, at top speed, into the avenue of chestnuts that lined the drive at Buckshaw.”
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
Although I had two DNF books this quarter, neither of them disappointed me as much as John Grisham’s “Camino Island”. I usually enjoy Grisham’s writing and his characters, especially when he’s not writing a lawyer novel, but this one didn’t do it for me.
“Camino Island” starts as a fast-moving, (very) stripped down, matter of fact, look how ingenious we are, heist. The plot moves along rapidly, if somewhat mechanically, executing what should have been the perfect robbery. The thieves are straight from central casting. The items being stolen, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts, are the only original things in the opening chapters.
If this had been a movie, the robbery would have taken place as a background to the credits rolling by and no one would have missed anything.
Then the flow of the book suddenly slows and we’re gently meandering through the life of our heroine, a woman with one successful novel behind her, weighed down by her student loan debt, about to lose her teaching job, involuntarily single and three years behind on writing her next novel.
It turns out she is the last best hope for retrieving the missing manuscripts. She accepts payment to go back the island she grew up on and spend the summer infiltrating the life of a bookseller suspected of holding the manuscripts.
Much of the book is spent describing the bookseller’s life, the lives of the other writers on the island (they are legion), the changing nature of the publishing world, the delights of good food, fine wine and antique Provençal furniture and the freedoms of an open marriage.
The dialogue is well done and the characters are clearly drawn but I felt that I had walked into a different novel (possibly written by a different author) than the one I’d started. I was less engaged that I could have been as I found the bookseller unattractive and our heroine passive and voyeuristic.
I kept reading partly because I wanted to see how this dive into Floridian book culture would connect back to the heist and partly because the writing made up for the plot.
In the end, the clever twist emerges and is well executed but it had all the emotional impact of a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat.
The epilogue that brings the main characters together for a final resolution simply confirmed that I didn’t like or care about either of them.
This is not a bad book but it left me feeling a little cheated because the heist never got past the cardboard cut-out stage and most of the book was as thrilling as watching strangers drink too much and talk too much at a cocktail party