It’s been a little while since I last posted, and I’ve been reading. Here’s some mini-reviews!
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
1864. Penguin Classics. Paperback. 713 pages.
I expected to like this classic novel and I did, very much. I loved its gentle atmosphere, and the characters of Molly and especially Cynthia were well-drawn. I looked forward to every appearance by Lady Harriet Cumnor, and the full circle that Molly makes regarding the Towers (the Cumnor estate) was very satisfying. Though well-realized psychologically, the scenes that featured only the Squire and his sons were not as compelling to me as the rest of the book. I think it was that the Squire and his eldest son were so locked in a stubborn emotional stalemate that those passages seemed more sluggish to me, than those with, say, Cynthia or her self-absorbed mother. As Gaskell died before quite finishing the book, I was afraid the unfinished ending would spoil the reading experience, but it didn’t. The book’s unintentional ending arrives as the narrative is staring to wind up, and my copy had an afterword that explained what the ending would have been (Gaskell had left notes).
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
2012. Little, Brown & Co. Hardcover. 330 pages.
I found this bestselling book to be interesting enough for my recent plane trip, but I didn’t find it either funny or endearing and I think the book was trying for a mixture of both. I think I was supposed to like Bernadette in spite of her flaws, but instead I found her rather insufferable. I didn’t much like the daughter for some reason either. The author was one of the writers for the show Arrested Development and I could see some semblance in humor, but I think the Bluths were more lovable than any of the Bernadette cast of characters. But the book’s structure (mostly epistolary) moves along at a good clip, and I did wonder what was going to happen, so I finished it fairly quickly.
After leisurely making my way through the length of Gaskell’s novel and Taylor Branch’s history tome, I went tearing through a passel of romance novels. I read Kristan Higgans’ The Best Man (pretty good, but marred by a tasteless joke at the expense of a transgender character); Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened (refreshingly broke some of the genre cliches, but wasn’t quite seamless with the historical elements); and Julie James’ About that Night (always like that her characters act like adults, and approach their jobs like professionals – however, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Something About You). I also read three Courtney Milan novels (well one was a novella), and have become a big fan of her approach to the romance genre. The characters have dynamic, interesting relationships with their friends, families and communities, not just with their love interest. The female protagonists are not “excepto-girls” – other female characters are ‘allowed’ to be awesome and break the mold. The male protagonists aren’t forced into the ridiculous “Alpha Male” fantasy. Again, the characters act like adults, and while sometimes there is misunderstandings, it’s not the level of almost willful miscommunication that I find in other books. In The Governess Affair, my favorite of the Milan reads, the male protagonist, Hugo, cuts through the unspoken sexual tension, and just says outright: “We’re attracted to one another, and it’s inconvenient.” Woohoo! Directness! It is sexy!
I also read a book by Carl Hiassen, whose name I’ve seen around but who I’d never read. My impression of his books are that they are all set in Florida, involve both suspense and comedy, and feature really colorful characters. I would have read Skinny Dip if it had been on my library’s shelves, as it’s the one I have heard of most. Instead, I picked Star Island which is about an out-of-control starlet and the actress who plays her double, when the starlet is too wasted to do it herself. The actress gets kidnapped by a crazy paparazzo, and stuff gets wacky. Other colorful characters include the starlet’s terrible entourage, a weird scary bodyguard, and a Robin Hood-esque former governor. It was a fun, forgettable read – its satirical take on celebrity reminded me a bit of I’m Losing You by Bruce Wagner, which I read ages ago.
I have one DNF book I want to mention: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Published in 2011, it is a ‘literary’ take on the werewolf story. The main character, Jake, has just found out he is the last werewolf on earth. He is kind of looking forward to being killed by the hunters who seek him, but several events work to shake him of this fatalistic mindset. Duncan’s writing style for this novel is quite dense, packed with evocative, elaborate phrasing. Justin Cronin, author of vampire novel The Passage, wrote a blurb for Duncan’s book, and I can see the similarity in their approach to genre fiction. I hated The Passage. I liked The Last Werewolf better, I think, as it could be quite clever, but the barrage of heavyweight vocabulary also kept me fairly aloof from the story.
The Last Werewolf is a very earthy novel – all frank, unsexy sex and entrails – and this fits with the werewolf mythos (the vampires in the novel look down on werewolves as unsophisticated sex-driven louts). It fits, but I didn’t much care for it: it seemed that every new situation that Jake encountered, the scene made sure to not just document Jake’s reaction but also the reaction of Jake’s penis. All the time. It just . . . wasn’t for me. I got pretty far in the book, as I had it with me on the plane, and a plot twist late in the novel almost cinched my investment. I was two-thirds of the way through the 300-page novel, thanks to the plane trip, but once I was home, I realized that I just didn’t care to spend more time in its world. I skipped to the end to find out who lived, and I’m good with that.