Monday, March 21, 2011

Breakfast at Stephanie's

Apparently, this week's theme is books with overly clever or punning titles.  Breakfast at Stephanie's, which I picked up and started to read about ten minutes after I finished the cleverly titled Admission, does not have any high-class hookers, middle-class gigolos/novelists, embarrassingly fake Japanese men, or even a jewelry store.  The cat has a name.  You get the picture, I'm sure.  Nonetheless, I have the unpleasantly nagging suspicion that Sue Margolis chose the heroine's name specifically so that she could make a punny titular allusion*.  To be fair, Stephanie does cook breakfast for her friends a couple of times - the title itself is sufficiently on-topic, if not all that descriptive - but there's just nothing there to link the book back to Breakfast at Tiffany's in any way, meaningful, thematic, or otherwise.

Aside from this immediate one-star deduction, the book quickly lost at least another star or two simply for not being very good.  None of the male-female interpersonal relationships are realistically drawn, not that this sets them drastically apart from the male-male and female-female interpersonal relationships.  The plot's not particularly interesting or fresh: single mother runs into former almost-flame, kid's father reenters the picture, friends have love problems, single mother has career aspirations that are unrealistic but turn out to be possible with a little self-esteem, whatever.

And then aside from these issues, there are the really puzzling bits.  A Southern producer, one of several poorly humanized secondary characters, has very few lines, and most of them are just like this: "Why, ah am as excited by the prospect as a possum up a gum stump," and "If you don't mind my saying, little lady, you are as perky as a ladybug's ears at planting time."  If Sue Margolis doesn't mind my saying, this character's just about as hi-larious as a hornet's nest shoved right up my nose at any time of the year.

The midget whom the heroine hires as her agent isn't precisely a barrel of laughs, either; he hits on her at just about every opportunity, waggling his eyebrows, ogling her cleavage, leering, and so on, and each time Margolis tells us that Stephanie didn't notice that the little fellow was attracted.  Each time, without fail.  After the first time, which is clumsily written to begin with, it just becomes strange.  Either Margolis has a bizarre chip on her shoulder about women who don't see midgets as valid potential sexual partners or she's just a poor writer.  I would also accept both.

I'm giving Breakfast at Stephanie's a low two stars, within its genre.

* Lest you think that this is an accidental aberration to which I'm overreacting, Margolis's other books include Neurotica (neurotic erotica, I presume?), Sisterica (sisters/hysteria, probably), and one I shudder as I type: Apocalipstick.  Breakfast at Stephanie's is at least a pun, rather than the kind of portmanteau word one would expect to find in a ticking briefcase.


Clever, double entendre titles are also a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel Admission is perfectly titled: it's about an admissions officer who struggles with admitting to a great secret she's hung onto for seventeen years.  And on the other hand, it's just a little too cute and a little too perfect, which describes the novel adequately as well.

Coincidences are at the heart of most fiction, and most lives.  Who hasn't sat around with their friends, usually a bit drunk, and speculated on how your lives would have been different had you and your spouse/best friend/girlfriend not been in the same coffee shop at the same time/at the same college/on the same bus?  Well, yes, your lives would have been different; but then again, that's how you meet anyone: anything is a coincidence in retrospect.  Which is why I'm not too harsh a judge of coincidence in fiction.  Truth is actually stranger.

In the case of Admission, even my tolerant attitude toward coincidences had to stretch more than a little.  I can't describe the coincidences I'm referring to - the whole book is built around one particular event, and while I fully expect anyone who's paying attention to figure out the great mystery within thirty pages or so, why not let you have your own fun - but believe me when I say that even the greatest credulity will be strained by some of them.

Otherwise, Admission is a perfectly decent novel.  Korelitz manages to pull off a fair amount of melodrama with a light enough touch that it never becomes obnoxious.  In fact, she's a good writer, with the exception of a couple of stylistic nit-picks that wouldn't, perhaps, bother anyone but me.  My biggest peeve was her overuse of the emphatic double negative: "not unrelated" and the like.  It's a good construction, and I use it myself, but Korelitz could have turned a few of those into positive constructions and it wouldn't have hurt the book.  She also tends to repeat words that are just unusual enough to pop out at you: "... she said unkindly" and "preemptively" or "preemptive" being the two that stuck with me.  There were a couple of places in which a word other than "preemptive" actually would have been more accurate, and that bothered me even more than the repetition.

Within its genre - contemporary fiction - I give Admission a solid three and a half stars.  The plot isn't worth that much, and really should be more of a two and a half, but I'm adding a full star for the simple fact that the writing style isn't self-conscious or pretentious.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Remember Me?

Sophie Kinsella, who's also written as Madeline Wickham, is a pretty generic chick lit author.  I don't mean any disrespect; it's not easy to write a novel at all, let alone the many that Kinsella's managed to turn out over the last few years, but the fact is that none of Kinsella's books are particularly memorable, though all are competent.

Which is a good lead-in to Remember Me?, which is a moderately entertaining story of an average young woman who has a car crash and loses the memory of three years of her life - three years that happen to include her marriage, her promotion to an executive position at her company, and a full personal transformation from your generic haphazard funky twenty-something chick lit heroine to a generic driven ambitious beige-suit-wearing chick lit villain.  When she wakes up, she's her old self again, and the predictable hijinks ensue.  There are one or two less-predictable twists, but none of the characters stretch beyond two dimensions.

I didn't actually remember much about Remember Me? from my first reading, which is why I gave it a second run-through today before giving it a write-up.  At least I recalled a vague outline of the story, which is more than I can say for the other amnesia chick lit novel on my shelf, Caprice Crane's Forget About It.  I'd write a few words about that one, too, since it's so on-topic, but honestly, I took the author's advice.  I think the girl in that one fakes amnesia and then gets real amnesia, oh-so-ironically, a few pages on, but don't quote me on that.

My biggest problem with Remember Me?, aside from its plot reaching 80s soap opera levels of originality, is its length.  It's a respectable 389 pages, in my trade paperback edition, but those pages fly by fast - editors really need to stop thinking readers won't notice when they monkey around with the font sizes and spacing.  If I'm going to spend a few dollars escaping into a light and fluffy world in which acrylic nails and frosted cupcakes are important, then dammit, I want those nails and cupcakes to occupy me for at least two days of scattered reading time.  If I can get through two books in a day, those books had better cost less than five dollars together.

Remember Me? gets a respectable three stars within its genre, despite the fact that it's written in the present tense.  The half star I would have deducted for usage of the present tense is balanced out by the half star I've added to acknowledge the fact that Kinsella is a sufficiently skillful writer to use the present tense without making me want to beat her with a semicolon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear

Before I begin, I have to offer a quick apology to my gentle readers (and a more sincere apology to my angry readers, because I'm much more afraid of them) for my absence last week.  The book I'm about to review was responsible for two or three days, and doing things that didn't involve books, horrors, accounted for the rest.

Now, back to our regular programming: The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss's sequel to his bestselling first novel, The Name of the Wind, and the second entry in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy.

I'll start by admitting I've been waiting for this book, more or less patiently, for a couple of years now; when it was supposed to be released last spring, I went to Borders in a fever of excitement and left a cursing, shambling, disappointed shell of an Editor.  Despite what publishers and Amazon reviewers may have you believe, decent non-crap fantasy novels are released as rarely as a unicorn is seen outside the pages of a crappy fantasy novel; it was a sad, sad day for the Indiscriminate Reader.  Now, though, I'm actually quite pleased about the delay for one reason: the space between books one and two, and the opportunity I had to get unexcited again, left me much more prepared to comment dispassionately on The Wise Man's Fear*.

The final verdict: I'm on the fence.

Let's back up.  In The Name of the Wind, readers were introduced to Kvothe, the young son of a group of traveling musicians and players whose culture and lifestyle were clearly borrowed liberally from the gypsies.  Traveling with them for a while is a magician of sorts, who fascinates Kvothe with tales of the University, where science, history, languages, and magic are all taught in equal proportion.  Kvothe's father, as the story begins, is at work on a song about a group of mythological bad guys called the Chandrian; very soon after the story begins, the Chandrian prove themselves less than mythological by showing up and slaughtering Kvothe's family.  He survives, and he sets out for the nearest major city with the intent of getting himself to the University as soon as he can to satisfy his thirst for knowledge about the still-mysterious, albeit no longer legendary, Chandrian.

Without giving away too many spoilers, it's safe to say that Kvothe spends most of The Name of the Wind at the University: he meets a young woman whose provenance is meant to be fascinatingly mysterious, he makes friends, he makes enemies, and he studies.  There's a bit of action, certainly, so don't get the impression that there isn't; and it's a fun book, no doubt about it.  It's just that . . . well, we'll get to the just that in a moment.

The Wise Man's Fear is framed in the same way as the first book.  In both, the narrator is Kvothe himself, telling his story from the lofty and world-weary vantage point of a man a little under thirty.  Kvothe is, at this chronological point in his tale, presumed dead, and he's running a village inn under an assumed name; he tells his story to a scribe who tracks him down and discovers his true identity.  Here's a brief excerpt from his story, an excerpt which also appears on the book jacket:

My name is Kvothe.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings.  I burned down the town of Trebon.  I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life.  I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in.  I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day.  I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

Discerning readers may detect a faint note of arrogance in the above.  That theme is carried all the way through both books; Patrick Rothfuss clearly thinks Kvothe is just about the coolest, and Kvothe agrees with him.  What's hard to put your finger on is how much of this is meant to be tongue in cheek.  While I've already seen Kvothe do some of these things in the first two books (I won't say which, I promise), so far, he's a college student.  Harry Potter goes to Oxford, just a little bit, although I'll admit before even finishing the sentence that that's a little too harsh.  I get that reputation is a big theme in these books; Kvothe purposely spreads rumors about himself, and more rumors are eagerly spread by others.  I can see where Rothfuss might be going with this, but the message is just a little too muddled to compensate for the disconnect between the overblown narrative frame, in which Kvothe is the most famous man in the world, and the text so far, in which he's a college student.  A smart, bad-ass college student, no doubt, but a teenager all the same.

It's even harder to know how much Rothfuss identifies with Kvothe, or rather, how much of the books are wish fulfillment.

And that's the just that I referred to above.  All fiction is wish fulfillment to some extent: escape from reality, identification with someone whose life is more exciting than one's own, the opportunity to mentally travel somewhere one otherwise could not.  But there's a fine line between an author constructing a main character and a world he finds interesting, in order to fulfill the wishes of the readers, and an author projecting his own desires so strongly onto a character that the story begins to feel unrealistic.  In a previous post, I talked about characters who are smarter than their creators, and the issues that arise in such literature.  The corresponding problem that arises in fantasy is caused by characters so outside the norm that they become disproportionate to their world.

The greatest fantasy offender in this regard (and in fact in almost every other way, but that's a story for another day) was Robert Jordan, God rest 'im.  Rand, one of the protagonists of the Wheel of Time series, suffers badly from awesomeness overload.  He's the most powerful magic-user around - for those of you who may be familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, which is overall the best reference material to consult when reading Jordan anyway, Rand's a level-20 mage in a magic missile-using world - but that's not enough.  No, he is also so attractive to nubile, busty young women that three of them, each hotter and more libidinous than the last, fight over him, cry over him, and eventually agree to share him.  As I recall, Rand just shrugged and went with it.  He felt a little bad about screwing around with all of them, but you know, he wasn't going to choose or anything, so their solution worked for him.  The way it was written made me uncomfortable, and not because of the subject matter; I was uncomfortable because I felt like I'd just been given a peek I deeply didn't want into Robert Jordan's personal fantasy life.

Kvothe isn't quite this unbalanced, and I'm not saying that Rothfuss is as prone as Jordan to put his own fantasies straight onto the page.  But Kvothe, as a character, is just a little too awesome in ways that feel to me like Rothfuss's idea of how awesome he would like to be, and the often-realistic way in which Rothfuss gives Kvothe the typical problems of a teenager just isn't enough for counterbalance.  One romantic fumble doesn't erase fifty pages of a sixteen-year-old displaying sophisticated social analysis, technical know-how, and overall badassery.  Kvothe is a bit on the smarter-than-his-creator side, too; he's supposed to be a genius, and yet there are moments when information is presented and the reader is able to put it together well before the character.  That's no fun for anyone, and it weakens the suspension of disbelief that's more important in fantasy than in any other genre.

But beyond any of this, I had one issue with The Wise Man's Fear that I just couldn't get past.  I get that fairy tales, of which this book is a conscious echo, have stylistic elements one might not find in most fiction.  Rhyming dialogue, for example.  And if the rhyming dialogue in the book had been confined to those scenes in which Kvothe interacts with fairy folk, I'd have kind of dug it - but it pops up in several random places in the book, as if Rothfuss just couldn't resist rhyming whenever good rhymes occurred to him.  It was distracting.  It was irritating and overused.  The book's losing a whole half star because of it.

I should end this review with some positive notes, however, since the book overall was entertaining and competently written (and I mean this as high praise, given the competition).  The Kingkiller Chronicle isn't a Tolkien redux.  It's not sword and sorcery, despite the presence of both swords and sorcery.  There's no gratuitous creepy sex, which has been such a recurring theme in the last decade or two of fantasy that it's going to get its own post one of these days - and huge props to Rothfuss for that.

And my highest praise for this book: as I said above, much of the background material is clearly pulled from fairy tales and folk stories.  The way Rothfuss handles this is refreshing in two important ways.  One: he has obviously gone directly to the sources for his inspiration, rather than depending on muddled interpretations of folklore as already presented in other fantasy novelists' stories; two: only someone who truly understands, loves, and delights in the tone of proper fairy tales would be able to imitate them so successfully.

The Wise Man's Fear, minus the rhyming penalty, ends up with three and three quarters stars within the fantasy genre.  I recommend Rothfuss's books wholeheartedly to anyone who loves fantasy but is tired of reading about dragons.

* Should the author of these books stumble upon this review, be it noted: I am in no way encouraging a further delay in the release of book three.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday Classic: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Since the new Jane Eyre movie just came out, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the Brontë sisters.  I don't feel prepared to comment on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre at the moment, not because I haven't read it a hundred times, which I have, but because I haven't read it recently.  It's on my to-read stack at present, and a post on that can wait.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written by Anne Brontë, the youngest of the six Brontë children.  It's an interesting book for a variety of reasons, not least because it stands in great contrast to the two other most famous Brontë works (Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights); while Anne indulged in a fair amount of melodrama, just like her sisters, Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic story.  The wild-eyed frothing moor-beasts* of Wuthering Heights are nowhere to be found, and there are no madwomen confined in attics.  There's an alcoholic husband, an assault, and some pretty sordid affairs, but overall the subject matter is tame compared to Anne's sisters' most famous works.

Perhaps due partly to the fact that the heroine of Wildfell Hall was written as a relatively normal person, rather than a psychopath or sociopath (Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Catherine Linton Earnshaw respectively, yes, you read that right**, of Wuthering Heights) or as an eccentric (the eponymous Jane Eyre), she's become something of a feminist literary icon.  While Jane Eyre and the two Catherines are all a bit too strange to be viewed through the lens of normal psychology, Wildfell Hall's heroine is sane enough that her actions, whether socially acceptable or not, can be interpreted as being carried out by a person who at least knows and cares what society expects of a normal individual.

The book begins when a mysterious widow with a young son moves to a small village and slowly becomes friends with a local almost-gentleman farmer.  The widow, it transpires, is not a widow at all, but instead the runaway wife of one of the most one-dimensionally unappealing men in the history of literature.  He drinks, curses, gambles, lies, gets fat, sleeps with the governess, abuses his wife, sleeps with his friend's wife, drinks some more, feeds liquor to his toddler son, curses, gets more fat, drinks a great deal more, and finally becomes really unpleasant.

Feminist critics love the fact that it was considered a somewhat shocking turn when this man's wife eventually up and left him.  Many critical mills have been gristed with Wildfell Hall, and some of the essays and books produced are actually interesting, believe it or not.  From a critical perspective, the way the heroine deals with her husband and then deals with leaving him is the most interesting part of the book.

From the perspective of the casual reader, the novel's both smoothly written and entertaining.  Some may find the characters not to their taste; there's a good point to be made that with the exception of the hero's younger brother there's not one really likable character in the whole book.  With that said: Wildfell Hall easily earns three and a half stars overall.  There are weaknesses to be found, but they don't outweigh the pleasures.

* The protagonists.

** Wuthering Heights is a copyeditor's worst nightmare.  Heathcliff (who, like Madonna, needs only one name to express the power of his awesome) loves Catherine Earnshaw Linton; instead, he marries Catherine's sister-in-law, who is then Isabella Linton Heathcliff, and they produce a son, Linton Heathcliff.  Catherine Earnshaw Linton's daughter Catherine Linton eventually marries Hareton Earnshaw, thus becoming Catherine Linton Earnshaw; Hindley Earnshaw is by this time long dead, but his initials, confusingly, live on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Getting Rid of Matthew

When I pick up a novel for a dollar on the clearance rack of Half Price Books, I don't expect much.  Usually I also don't get much, Candace Bushnell, ahem, so this one was a pleasant surprise.

Along with any of my readers who've read extensive chick lit, I've seen my share of novels about women involved with married or otherwise unavailable men, and there are few surprises to be had at any turn.  This one amused me right up front: the book starts with the heroine's married older lover actually leaving his wife for her.  He shows up on the doorstep, suitcase in hand - just after the heroine, having spent a few really pleasant days alone without any visits or calls from him, realizes that she doesn't actually like him that much after all.  So now she has this annoying old guy in her apartment.  Bummer.  And hence, the title of the book.

While that plot twist in and of itself wouldn't have been enough to make me a fan, the protagonist's inner monologue converted me.  I hate it, I really, really hate it, when reviewers maunder on about an author's "unique voice," which is usually their go-to praise when the author in question can't put together a grammatical sentence.  "Unique voice," much like "evocative prose," is often also code for overuse of metaphors that look like they recently went through the Kitchen Aid.  That said, sometimes an author really does have a striking voice, and Jane Fallon's was consistently angry and violent and often at odds with the light subject matter.  The heroine's a bit of a foul-mouthed bitch, to be completely clear; she's often unsympathetic, which made me feel a bit more at home with the novel as a whole.

This book's a solid three and a half stars on the chick lit scale; I therefore recommend it seven-tenths-heartedly to anyone who reads the genre.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monday Classic: Twenty Years After

Now here's a Monday classic that is in fact a classic according to Oxford University Press*, but which you'll never find on any high school reading list, anywhere.  I attribute this to the fact that Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas's first sequel to The Three Musketeers, is as exciting as any book could be and only marginally depressing, unless you're particularly attached to Charles I's head**.

Twenty Years After picks up precisely where you would expect it to, in chronological relation to The Three Musketeers.  D'Artagnan, now serving Cardinal Mazarin (the great Cardinal Richelieu's successor), is given a mission: to find his three friends and bring them into the Cardinal's service.  There's quite a bit more going on; Paris is in turmoil, as it seems as if Paris has always been.  I see no reason to give a plot summary, as Dumas is so much more fun when you read his books without any spoilers.  No summary could do his intricate plotting justice.

What I will say, though, is that Twenty Years After is a true sequel to the great Musketeers, not only in its content (the major villain in Twenty Years After is intimately connected to the villain of the previous book, and the political intrigue is both involved and deadly), but also in its tone.  While our heroes have grown older, and in some cases wiser, they are nonetheless as ready to draw swords or to climb up to a lady's bedroom in the middle of the night as they ever were.  Dumas is also the master of drawn-out revenge and poetic justice, a talent he most perfectly displays in The Count of Monte Cristo but from which he gets plenty of mileage in both The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

I don't think I need to recommend Dumas to those who already enjoy a good sword fight with plenty of aristocratic French insults thrown in.  Cloaks are thrown back, hats are shot off with pistols, all kinds of limbs are run through; I can never get enough of this.  For any of my readers who feel the same, I'd be preaching to the converted.  And if any of my readers aren't fans of this style, then there's nothing I can say except, please do enjoy the new Philip Roth, since someone has to.  Dumas can be more than a little melodramatic at times; characters turn purple with rage and bite their handkerchiefs to pieces in moments of great emotion (no, I'm not making this up).  This might be a drawback for some, but I'm about to tell you why it shouldn't be.

Paradoxically, Dumas is to my knowledge both the greatest writer of melodrama and also one of the best writers of true, heart-wrenching drama ever to pen a novel (and sometimes on the same page).  I attribute this to characterization.  In The Three Musketeers and its sequels, d'Artagnan and the eponymous three are consistently dramatic, rather than melodramatic.  Even in moments when you should be rolling your eyes at the over-the-top quality of it all, they hold you spellbound, while secondary characters often go noticeably over the top at the drop of a chewed-up handkerchief.  I don't know if the contrast is simply down to Dumas's investment in these characters, or if he actually thought about how he would write them differently from their supporting cast.  Honestly, I would vote for a combination of both.  But anyone who dismisses Dumas as a writer of melodramatic historical potboilers should think again.

In that vein, I'd like to comment on one of the most striking aspects of Twenty Years After, a quality which is also possessed by all of Dumas's best works.  Dumas managed to consistently write thrilling, often funny stories which also have a melancholic feel running all the way through.  This sadness of event and theme, which appears in The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, is given full rein in the final book, Ten Years Later, which is generally published (including by Oxford World's Classics) as three books: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

In last week's Monday classic post on David Copperfield I challenged my readers to prove they were not Cylons by reading A Tale of Two Cities.  Tears at the closing lines = you are human.  A reader of mine suggested Old Yeller as an equivalent barometer of humanity, which is fair enough.  The last few chapters of The Man in the Iron Mask are on much the same level.  The first time I read that book, I was wearing my glasses, and they were so fogged and dripping with tears that I could only read about three sentences at a time before cleaning them yet again.  The Man in the Iron Mask still has the same effect on me to this day, after an estimated ten readings over the last sixteen years.  Twenty Years After, which I've read at least as many times, is still just as delightfully suspenseful (yes, even knowing what happens, there's suspense - it's the magic of Dumas) and touching as it always was.  Five stars overall and in its genre.

* The best current paperback editions of almost any Dumas novels are those put out by Oxford World's Classics.  They reprint older translations, and while I know that there are people out there with a strange mania for new and modern translations . . . think about this for a moment, everyone.  If you were writing something now, in contemporary French, would you think a translation into English made by someone idiomatically familiar with contemporary French would be better than a translation made by someone magically imported from 1845?  The reverse holds true as well.  The Dumas translations done in the 19th century are just plain better.

My favorite translation of The Three Musketeers is currently being published by Dover, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to Dumas.

** After 1649, Charles I wasn't either, unfortunately for him.