Book Learnin’

Hmm…it’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. I think I’m going to do things a little differently on this blog from now on. I’m going to post excerpts and outtakes from projects I’m working on, and discuss good novels that I’ve read (I might as well, since I read obsessively). Unfortunately, I have no immediate plans to discuss black hair soon (WHY do I get fifty hits a day just for this post?) but hey, I could be persuaded to write some more about it.

So…books I’ve read recently:

Austenland by Shannon Hale – Latest in a long line of “OMG I love P&P with Colin Firth he’s SOOO hot” chick lit novels for both teenagers and adults. This is nominally for adults, though nothing in it wouldn’t be appealing to the YA crowd. It was fine, as far as it went, but it suffered from a problem I generally have with chick lit novels, namely that I find the main characters to be unbearable, neurotic, status-obsessed clones of Meg Ryan from, uh, about a dozen Nora Ephron films. I gather that the neuroticism over men and babies is supposed to be funny and relateable, but I do not relate and I didn’t crack a smile. On the other hand, what woman hasn’t imagined what she’d be like back in the time of Jane Austen? The central conceit of the novel is extremely clever. In brief: there are exclusive resorts for very rich women, where for three weeks they get to dress in period clothing, sleep in period housing, and interact with gorgey actors who are pitch-perfect period men. They also, of course, get to conduct clandestine affairs with these men, who have been trained in their personality types and know exactly how to fulfill their fantasies. The main character in Austenland is so obsessed with Mr. Darcy-as-Colin-Firth, that she goes there (via a gift from a rich aunt) as a kind of detox to try to get over the obsession so she can like regular men again. But of course…well, you don’t need a crystal ball to guess how it’s going to turn out. Amusingly enough, Hale is so much better at the period interactions than the modern ones, that I only ever really bought the romance when the main characters were acting their roles. And can I just say: much as I adore the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice (and believe me, adore is the word) the novel is BETTER. Much better. Without the biting, mocking tone of the narrator, the absurdities of the characters can be glossed over. It edges closer to soap opera than social satire. Why can’t people just appreciate the damn book?! Ahem.

But, I thought, parts of this were good. Maybe Hale just was writing the wrong novel. Which led me to…

The Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale – This was great! The narrator’s voice was so authentic, the setting and world-building was original and intriguing, the romance was squee-inducing (hey, I read YA novels for a reason) but not overpowering, and all the plot elements worked together very neatly at the end. This novel is told in the form of a journal by the servant of a steppe princess who has decided to brick herself into a tower for a thousand days instead of marrying the evil man her father wishes her to. But something is wrong with the princess…Hale is very deft at depicting a condition that might be autism from the point of view of a culture that would have no recognition of it. In some ways, this reminded me of Summers at Castle Auburn, which I love. Check this one out.

Extras by Scott Westerfeld – Well, like I need to really tell anyone about this, but yes, I read it, and yay! it was really good. What else did you expect? I loved seeing Tally from someone else’s perspective (a bit of a bitch, like you didn’t know), and of course it was fascinating to see how the changes from the first three Uglies novels changed the world. Even neater, I got to do a reading with the author 🙂

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray – When the third novel in this trilogy finally came out, I nearly did cartwheels. And it’s so deliciously long. Have I mentioned how much I dislike this imposed word-limit on YA novels? I mean, it has become obvious over the last several years that people like me who read YA novels are voracious readers who hardly mind the occasional tome over 80,000 words. But the only time you see really long YA novels are later books in the series’ of major authors. Oh well. Lucky for me, this falls in that category, so I had over 600 pages in which to love, and say goodbye to, these characters. And characters are what this series is all about. Bray’s plotting can sometimes be confusing and intensely contrived (this was no exception: Gemma overheard sensitive conversations by following people down dark hallways an improbable number of times), but her characterization is easily some of the best I’ve ever read. She has this knack for creating very real characters who are utterly the products of their times, but hide deeper facets that you might mistakenly think are only modern afflictions. In this novel, she takes on cutting, lesbian relationships, incest and interracial dating, just to name a few. The veneer over Victorian society has never been thinner. By the end of this, I was just weeping. Okay, novels make me weep all the time, but this was particularly satisfying.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – Hey, I’ve got to leaven a diet of YA novels with some adult fare every once in a while. This is one of Gibson’s most famous books, and deservedly so. A lot of it is masterfully done. Unfortunately, the plot seems to fall apart in the climax, where the main character literally passes out during the messy resolution of what has turned out to be an old cold war holdover spy game. She wakes up, and it’s all resolved. A little dissatisfying. And shall I say that I understand that this was written in the year after 9/11, but I am deeply suspicious of all novels that attempt to use that event to generate extra pathos in their characters. Particularly when the repercussions of that event, in terms of two long-term American wars, aren’t discussed at all. But still, very worth reading. Cayce’s peculiar derangements are a genuine accomplishment.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’ve been trying to read the classics of 20th century literature lately, and this was one of the first on my list because it neatly coincides with research I’m doing for my roaring 20s vampire novel (oh yes). My opinion of the work, I know, matters not at all, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed it. The pacing is a little elegiac, but all the better to draw out the foibles of the characters. Also, I suspect that Nick Carraway is a little gay. And for the record, I thought that before I read about the great debates online.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene – Another one of my classics. What beautiful writing! I felt like I could smell the jungle humidity and opium smoke. I’m not sure how I feel about his portrayal of Phuong in this–in some lights it might be construed as patronizing and shallow, but on the other hand, couldn’t that just be more revealing about how little she reveals to Fowler and how little he can see in her? Because there is a scene at the end that seems to subtly reveal a depth of emotion we don’t see from her otherwise. Right, no need for a dissertation, but this is well worth reading. A view of the Vietnam war that I haven’t read elsewhere and heartbreaking.

If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you thought. And, of course, all book recommendations are very much appreciated.


One thought on “Book Learnin’

  1. eryn. says:

    I’ve read the great gatsby like 2 or 3 times. I’ve also watched the movie as well.
    That book never gets old to me and its a great read I might add.

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