"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review #14: The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

One of my biggest fears is surviving an end-of-the-world catastrophe. It was recently pointed out to me that I'm worrying needlessly, that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, it's unlikely I'd survive past the first wave. Probably that's an accurate statement. I don't do well without air conditioning or diet Coke. But if I did survive, I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if I got to live at the airport with Hig and Bangley. Mostly because while Bangley scares the ever-loving daylights out of me, I also know he could protect me, and Hig seems nice and is probably pretty good looking in an LL Bean/end of the world kind of way, plus he has a secret Coke stash, so even if there's no air conditioning, he could manage to feed my aspartame addiction. 

After a worldwide flu pandemic wipes out nearly everyone on the planet, Hig retreats to a small county airfield with only his dog Jasper and a salty older man named Bangley for company. Together they set up a sort of commune, if you can call a two-man operation a commune. Hig's only means of escape from the monotony of protecting their sanctuary from the roving bands of marauders - the few who survived - is The Beast, his 1956 Cessna, and so he flies off to patrol the perimeter of the airport, reporting back to Bangley any movements in the mountains and woods beyond their little enclave. Hig also regularly visits a family of Mennonites who live near by, careful to stay eight feet away from them because they carry the blood disease, something that came along as the flu spread throughout the world, and is slowly killing a majority of the survivors. 

Restless and struggling to find meaning in his existence, curious about what is on the other side of the mountain, and thoroughly unable to forget a radio transmission he heard three years prior from an airport that should have been shuttered six years before that, Hig makes the irreversible decision to fly past the point of no return. 
Twenty nine point three gallons. Not enough gas to get home. As simple as that. 
As simple as that we go over the edge.
Told in spare sentences, sometimes just fragments, Hig's story evokes memories of Cormac McCarthy and The Road, that stream of consciousness, no quotation marks, you're in someone's brain style. But unlike McCarthy, who is grim and stark and who often left me feeling depressed, Heller somehow managed to infuse what should be a very bleak story with something completely unexpected: hope. Hig is a warrior poet, and it shows in his thoughts, his actions, and his words. This is a man who has lost everything - his family, his wife, his child, his home, his dog - and yet he continues on, flying past the point of no return, awaiting his fate, ever hopeful.

Review #13: The Boy, by Lara Santoro

I finished The Boy about a month or so ago, and I've been sitting on my review because I'm not sure what to say. Emma Donoghue (Room) said she "read it one go" and that it was "brutally honest...about the price of motherhood". And while I haven't read Room, lots of Cannonballers have - she's quite a favorite around here - but her recommending this book as highly as she did honestly kind of puts me off reading it. 

Anna is a single mom, raising precocious eight year old Eva. Anna and Eva are living in Arizona while Eva's dad stays behind in England. It was definitely not an amicable divorce, and both Anna and her ex-husband have lots to say to poor Eva about the other parent. Eva tries, as most kids do in that situation, to play the neutral party, and she's really the only voice of reason in the whole novel. Although I must say that the housekeeper, with her constant trips to Sonic, imparts some wisdom as well.

In the opening scenes, Anna is at a party at her neighbor's house, sitting in the kitchen drinking wine, mostly hiding from the other guests. She meets a young man, so young that she questions whether he's legally allowed to be drinking the beer in his hand. His self-confidence and swagger both draws her in and repels her, and before she consciously realizes it, "the boy" has taken over her life. With Eva conveniently in England visiting her father, Anna and the boy fall in to bed, and suddenly his things are all over her house, and he's practically living there. Further complicating matters is that the boy is the son of her neighbor, and he and his father are definitely not on speaking terms. Of course, the romance, if it can be called that, ends badly just as Eva returns, and Anna is upside down about it. One evening, though, the boy finally crooks his finger to Anna, and Anna, drunk, gets in the car (with Eva) to see him. The car flips, and the next thing Anna knows, she's waking up in the hospital, and Eva is in a coma. Eva's father, understandably, wrests custody away from Anna, and Anna is left without Eva. 

And that's the story in a nutshell. There are some references to Anna having had postpartum depression shortly after Eva was born, and Eva's father is not portrayed as being especially sympathetic about it - or anything else in Anna's life - but nothing stood out that was The Reason for Anna's behavior. Anna just came across as an incredibly selfish person. So did Eva's father, for that matter, but everything in Anna's behavior was all about her, even when Eva was lying in the hospital. At no time did she seem to put Eva first, and even to the last page of the book, I never felt that Anna really understood what she had done wrong. I can't recall ever disliking a character more, except maybe for Amy in Gone Girl or the nut job teacher from Tampa

Santoro's prose and pacing is good, but the story just didn't do it for me. Maybe I just didn't get it. Or maybe the price of my motherhood is different from that of Anna's. Probably I should be glad of that. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review #12: The Peach Keeper, Sarah Addison Allen

I downloaded this from the local library the other day so I would have something to listen to while I walked in the evenings. (Even though it feels like it's 90 degrees already and it's only April. What am I going to do when it's August???) Anyway, I needed something sort of fluffy and chick lit-esque that I could sort of half listen to while I huffed and puffed my way through the soup that is known as Florida air and I thought this would fit the bill.

The Peach Keeper tells the interwoven story of two thirty-something women living in quaint Walls of Water, NC, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Willa Jackson is the former high school joker, running a coffee and organic clothing shop that caters mainly to hikers. Paxton Osgood is the cool, blonde ex-cheerleader, president of the Young Women's Society, spending her days deciding how best to distribute the family money. Rounding out the cast of characters are Colin Osgood, Paxton's twin brother, who has a thing for Willa, Paxton's parents, who are quintessential old money Southerners, Annie, Willa's young business partner who thinks that she can predict a person's personality based on their coffee habits, and Sebastian, the possibly gay dentist, with whom Paxton is in love. Making a few cameos in a story that felt like it was meant to run parallel to Paxton and Willa's but never really hit the mark are Agatha Osgood, Paxton's grandmother, and Georgie Jackson, Willa's grandmother, both of whom live in the same nursing home.

Paxton has recently spent a year restoring the Blue Ridge Madam, the town's grandest home, long abandoned by Willa's ancestors, in the hopes that it will be ready to host the anniversary gala of the Young Women's Society, a club that was started by Paxton's and Willa's grandmothers 75 years ago. But when a peach tree planted on the property is moved to make room for a live oak, a skeleton is discovered, and long-buried secrets threaten to spill out. Suddenly, Paxton and Willa find themselves tangled together and must unravel a seventy-five-year-old mystery. 


I wasn't in love with this book. It was adequate for what it was, and it kept me interested enough to keep walking, but the characters were pretty one-note. The mystery wasn't exactly a mystery; I put two and two together pretty quickly, and I was only really sort of half listening. t found the story and the subsequent happily-ever-after ending for everyone a little bit trite, and Allen tried to interject some southern ghostly happenings, but they never really took off. Actually, I think that's what bothered me the most. The ghostly sightings or bells ringing when nobody was there felt contrived and almost after the fact. There was potential for a really compelling story - a nearly century old mystery, the catty women in the Young Women's Society (which could have had quite a few delicious scenes, but only produced one sort of half-hearted argument), unrequited love, family drama - but it just never really took flight for me. I'll give it three stars, but to be honest, I finished it Saturday, and I'm having trouble remembering the details two days later.

Review #11: Feed, by M.T. Anderson

Earlier this week, I looked at Target's website to see if they carried shoe repair glue. I didn't want to make a trip if they didn't have it (they didn't, by the way), so I did a brief thirty-second search online rather than drive to the store and be seduced in to buying things I don't need. Now, each time I log on to the interwebs, I'm inundated by ads for shoe glue, shoe inserts, and cobblers. I rarely pay attention to those ads - after all, my music station has been trying to get me to buy Kate Hudson's yoga pants for months now and I've successfully avoided ordering them, mostly because I know my ass won't look the way hers does. Ever. No matter what pants I'm wearing.

But in the future, I may not be so successful. Feed takes our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram feed and puts it on crack, implanting it directly in to human brains, most often at birth. Virtual reality becomes actual reality. School has been turned over to advertisers. All babies are test-tube babies, made in the conceptionarium, created with Mom's eyes, Dad's nose, and your favorite celebrity's smile. People instant message with each other by thinking their thoughts and directing them in to another person's feed. Music isn't played over the speakers at bars; you just hook your feed up to it. (Imagine how weird that must be - the bar is silent, everyone nodding and dancing to some unheard beat, talking to each other without talking. People-watching at its finest.) And seventeen-year-old Titus never questions any of this until he meets Violet, a home-schooled teenaged girl who turns his head during a Spring Break trip to the moon.

Violet is unlike any girl Titus has ever met. She questions things, tries to beat the system by confusing the algorithms of the feed. She can write, and not only that, she does write, like with pen and paper, something that surprises Titus and embarrasses Violet. And the big difference: Violet didn't get her feed until she turned seven. When Titus and his friends, including Violet, are hit by a hacker while out at a club one night, their feeds are taken down and need to be reset. But because Violet didn't get her feed until later, her reset doesn't work as well, and as a result, Violet is dying. The feed is too central to her body and its functions; without it, she can't move, can't talk, can't survive. The help desk is no help, and anyone who has ever called an automated answering service will understand her frustration at not being able to talk to an actual human, only when we can't talk to a human, the only thing it affects is not being able to pay our phone bill. When Violet can't get a person on the phone, it's quite literally a matter of life and death. 

Anderson's writing is difficult to handle at times. Because the novel is written in the first person, it reads much like I imagine a half-stoned teenaged boy would speak, with lots of "likes" and "units" thrown in for good measure, kind of a Cher Horowitz version of the future. Much of the conversation between Titus and his friends is mind-numbingly inane, but it serves as a good counterpoint to Violet and her father. Violet's father, a professor, speaks in a "dead" language that sounds an awful lot like the English we all know and love. I was concerned about Violet's potential to succumb to Manic Pixie Dream Girl-itis, but Anderson infuses her with just enough imperfections to keep her grounded and real.

What I liked most about this book was that, at its heart, it's a simple boy-meets-girl story and Titus and Violet are both flawed heroes. It just happens to be set against a crazy futuristic backdrop, but Titus and Violet have the same issues that teenagers have today in 2015, that they had when I was a teenager, that they had when my parents were teenagers. The environment changes, but the emotions are still the same. It's good to know that when my daughter is melting down over what someone said on Instagram or whatever its iteration will be five years from now, I'll still be able to identify with her. And hopefully I'll be able to do it verbally, instead of over the Feed.

"Yuh," said Loga. "It's Riot Gear. It's retro. It's beat up to look like one of the big twentieth-century riots. It's been big since earlier this week."   ... When we went inside, Marty and Quendy were also wearing Riot Gear. "Hey," said Loga to Quendy, pointing. "Kent State collection, right? Great skirt!"

If you think Feed can't happen, you haven't been paying attention. Urban Outfitters is already making the sweatshirts.

Review #10: The Talisman, by Stephen King & Peter Straub

The last Stephen King book I read was the one about the car, Christine, and it scared sixteen-year-old me enough that I haven't picked him up since, with the exception of the collection of short stories that has The Body and Shawshank Redemption in it. What can I say? I'm a weenie when it comes to scary things, and since quite a lot of my reading is done at night, after the house is quiet, I don't need the book I'm reading to add to my already vivid imagination about what's outside my windows. The trees scraping against the awnings do quite a nice job of that all on their own. So when The Talisman arrived in my Kindle inbox, I accepted it with more than a smidge of trepidation. But I was assured that it was "not scary", and so I embarked on the fantastical journey of twelve year old Jack Sawyer, a young boy intent on crossing the United States in search of a mythical talisman in the hopes of curing his mother of the mysterious illness that is eating her alive.

Jack's mother, the once beautiful Lily Cavanaugh, former B-movie actress, mysteriously moves Jack and herself to the Alhambra Hotel on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. In season, the hotel is a resort destination, but when Jack and Lily arrive, it's past Labor Day, and everything is shuttered, the shops closed, the ocean grey and angry. Bored, Jack meets Speedy Parker, the old man who takes care of the local amusement park. Speedy, it seems, knows Jack, appears to have been waiting for him, actually, and through Speedy, Jack learns that he must strike out west to find the cure - the Talisman - that will save his mom.

What follows is an epic adventure of a young boy hitch hiking across the United States, flipping in to an alternate universe every so often. This other world, the Territories, is an amalgamation of a medieval world and a horrific one, where queens lay dying, werewolves protect the herd, and the Blasted Lands have been laid waste by the action of humans in this world. Jack flips back and forth from our world to the Territories, moving ever westward, surviving on his wits and a handful of well placed strangers and friends. It's two of those friends - Richard and Wolf - who made the story come alive for me. Wolf, a boy-werewolf from the Territories, tasked with keeping the herd safe, a gentle giant whose unflinching devotion to Jack leads him in to this world with its confusing smells and loud noises, ultimately sacrificing his life for Jack. And Jack's childhood friend Richard, picked up at boarding school in the midwest halfway through the journey, steadfastly refusing to believe that this whole thing isn't a dream, might just be my favorite character in the story. Richard, with his brave, trembling lip, with his insistence that he is just feverish and hallucinating the bugs crawling from the walls, with his unspoiled heart full of love and loyalty for Jack, so much so that he willingly gets on a train and rides through the desert night armed only with an AK-47 and Jack's determination that they must continue west. 

There's a reason Stephen King has sold eleventy billion books, and it's not just because people like scary stories. The man can write.  One of his greatest strengths is that he can create whole worlds with boy-werewolves, religious fanatics, empty suits of armor, enormous sea creatures, barren deserts, time travel, and alternate universe travel, and at no time do you ever question him. You wholeheartedly believe everything he tells you. King sweeps the reader along in his story, and it all makes sense. He paints the story with such vivid detail that more than once, I dreamt of the Territories and the mutilated humans and animals of the Blasted Lands, of Richard's boarding school and Jack and Wolf's time at the hellish Home for Wayward Boys in Indiana, and of Jack's mother, waiting for death in the grey and abandoned squalor of the Alhambra Hotel. I could see the empty amusement park, its carousel quiet for the winter, I could feel the cold of the unheated hotel rooms, and I could smell the clean scent of the ocean as Jack and Richard made their way west. 

If you haven't visited with Mr. King in a while, pick something up. He's long, but he's worth it. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review #9: The Beach, by Alex Garland

The Beach arrived in my inbox from JB, he of Shantaram and The Brothers K and Edgar. (I've decided that people who give you books are the best kind of people.) 

Our protagonist is Richard, a twenty-something British traveller, drifting about southeast Asia with no real discernible purpose. On his first night in Bangkok, he shares a wall and a joint with another traveller, Mr. Duck, and in the morning, discovers Mr. Duck's bloody body as well as a meticulously drawn map to a hidden beach on a forbidden island. Shocked and stunned by Mr. Duck's suicide, convinced that he left the map for him for some bigger reason, Richard decides to find the hidden Eden, and enlists the help of a young French couple, Etienne and the beautiful Francoise. On the eve of their departure, though, Richard, suddenly unsure he's making the right decision and nervous about disappearing to a hidden island with two strangers, makes a crude copy of the map and passes it to two more travellers, a decision that will come back to bite him later.

Together, Richard, Etienne, and Francoise set out to find the beach, and when they finally arrive, they discover a hidden paradise, ruled by the formidable Sal and populated by about two dozen European ex-pats. Each member of the enclave has a job to do, from fishing to cooking to gardening, and Richard, Etienne, and Francoise are the first newbies to arrive in years. Etienne and Francoise quickly assimilate, but Richard seems to never fully settle in to being comfortable on the beach.

The ghost of Mr. Duck makes several appearances, and there are some strange Vietnam references mixed in, which become more real and more graphic when Richard is assigned to Jed, the beach's patrolman. While I really liked Jed - without a doubt my favorite character and I wish we had been able to spend more time with him - the hallucinations and daydreams of Vietnam kind of took me out of the story, and I couldn't make sense of them. They felt self-indulgent and unnecessary, at least in their frequency. Many of the characters felt self-indulgent as well, but again, I think that was part of a larger point. I did wonder, often, about the beach-goers' families and whether anyone missed them, particularly when Death settled on the shores of this paradise, but nobody else seemed concerned about it. Rather, they were more worried that their Tet celebration would be compromised. It's inevitable that paradise will collapse on itself - one only has to look at the history books to know that - but the manner of the beach's collapse surprised me. At times, it felt gratuitously savage, but maybe that was part of a larger point. Maybe we're destined to destroy the very things that bring us pleasure. 

Told from Richard's standpoint, memoir-style, almost as if he were sitting in a dark bar on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with you, perhaps in New York or Chicago, almost certainly far removed from the beach, the novel wanders a bit, but there is always an underlying anxiety that never quite goes away, and so the reader is never quite able to relax. The entire time I was reading this, I was on edge, wondering what was going to happen, what was going to come out of the jungle, how it was going to come to an end. And with that sentence, I've just realized we've come full circle to the Vietnam references. Hmm...maybe they weren't as unnecessary as I originally thought.

The Beach is a quick read, original and frenetic and trippy and hallucinogenic. And, from what I hear, infinitely better than the movie.

Review #8: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I've never read Cormac McCarthy, even though he's on all the Must Read lists. And I've never seen No Country For Old Men, despite the fact that I would probably watch Javier Bardeem watch paint dry. It seemed very Western to me, and Westerns aren't really my thing, The Road isn't really my thing either - let's not forget I'm the same girl who read Beautiful Bastard, not once, but twice - but sometimes you have to read smart books, and McCarthy is definitely on that list.

The Road centers around the man and the boy - no names here, for names are wholly unimportant - making their way down a literal road in a trek to the sea. It feels like they're in America, but it's an America unlike anything we know now. It's cold, it's grey, it's snowing, and there is nothing left. Quite literally, nothing. No power, no food, no people, nothing. Their destination is the coast, with the man telling the boy that if they could just get to the sea, they may be able to get to some sort of salvation and maybe find other survivors, the "good guys". But the man doesn't know that for sure; in fact, he has no idea what they will find there, but he knows that to stay put means certain death.

But there are shadowy dangers along the way. Other people, the cold, the snow, lack of food, lack of water, lack of shelter, lack of humanity threatens their survival. The man and boy are often forced to hide in woods underneath trees that will never turn green, or along the banks of icy rivers, huddled under plastic tarps, desperate for warmth. Added to this, the man has a mysterious cough, tinged pink with blood, and although he tried to hide it from the boy, it soon becomes clear that he is training the boy for life after he is gone.

McCarthy never details what catastrophic event led to the destruction of the entire world. I assume a nuclear bomb, but I have trouble imagining the whole country - or possibly the whole world - affected by that. I also thought of some sort of climate change event, or perhaps a volcanic eruption, and at one point I even entertained a zombie invasion. My guess is nuclear bomb, but my feeling is also that it doesn't matter what the event is, only that it is.

McCarthy's not easy to read. The emotions that pour off the page and in to the reader are far more complicated than his simple, sparse prose would indicate. I found myself sort of mooning about the house or my office after reading this at lunchtime, in such a melancholy mood at times that Boss asked what was wrong with me. "Reading this book," I said. "Ah," he nodded, in perfect understanding of how a book can affect one's mood. 

The Road is bleak and sad and reeks of loneliness, but there are also pockets - albeit infinitesimally small ones - of hope strewn in there. It's hope that keeps us alive, after all, even in the face of utter destruction, and hope that marches forward.