Review: A Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Y’all know what I hate? I hate it when reviewers say shit like this:

Chances are none of these people will be deemed sufficiently “likable” by the pop-culture-coddled, uplift-craving audience that makes up a goodly portion of Rowling fandom. But hats off to her for not toning things down an iota in order to please them.

It’s irritating when a reviewer implies that people who didn’t like a book she liked are somehow a less virtuous kind of reader than she is (in this case, the kind of reader who doesn’t want to think about Important Social Issues); or to suggest that she knows why all the people who didn’t like a book didn’t like it. Don’t patronize me, Laura Miller! I don’t patronize you for wailing and gnashing your teeth over the discovery that CS Lewis’s books were influenced by his ideology just like the books of every author in the history of time. The people in A Casual Vacancy aren’t likable, as it happens, but as I have previously pointed out, the problem for me isn’t unlikable but unliked. I know this is true in the case of J. K. Rowling’s book because I occasionally had flashes of not minding the characters, and these always occurred because someone else in the story was displaying evidence of liking them. And the only character who liked most of the other characters died on page 3.

And really, it’s not because the characters do bad things. I like complicated characters in books. But these characters are near-uniformly hateful to everyone, and just, that is not how human people are. Even pretty awful people are sometimes kind. Even psychopathic killers have been nice to someone, and you know this is true because whenever there is a horrific massacre someone comes forward and says “He was also so polite and kind when he came in to my store for a large supply of Twix candies.” Being perpetually hateful does not make a character any more complicated than being perpetually good would, but it somehow gets a pass where a character of perfect virtue would be ripped to critical shreds.

The characters are also — and this, I think, is a fault of the book and not an incompatibility between the type of book it is and the type of reader I am — difficult to tell apart. There are a lot of them, all called things like Maureen and Shirley, and since nobody likes anybody else and they all spend their time gossiping about each other and resenting their spouses and parents and children, it’s hard to feel that it is even worthwhile trying to tell them apart. I kept having to flip back and check which asshole husband and which disaffected teens went with the mom who had the crush on the tweeny rock group.

Also a fault of the book (in my opinion): The ending. I’m so indignant about this ending! To the highlightable text for an indignant discussion! So at the end, the underprivileged girl takes her little brother out and goes to have sex with her school sex friend, but they’re having too much sex to pay attention to the underprivileged toddler so he wanders out and falls in the river and drowns, and then the underprivileged girl is so heartbroken she commits suicide. This all happens very suddenly right at the end and frankly feels like Rowling’s cheaty way of putting a tidy end to that storyline without its feeling unfairly optimistic. The messy but real thing — the outcome that the story earned — would be that the drug clinic would close, and the mother would relapse, and Child Protection would take Krystal and Robbie away and put them in separate homes. The ending Rowling uses is just so preachy and fakey and manipulatively heartstringsy, to the point that I, who am pretty softhearted, was too irritated to get heartstrings-tugged by it. I will accept a too-tidy happy ending, with reservations, but I will get very gripey about a too-tidy unhappy ending.

That said, this isn’t my kind of book, and I doubt I’d have liked it even if the characters were perfectly distinguishable and the ending a tour-de-force. I do not care for books about everyone being hateful to everyone else in petty undermining ways. I don’t care if Laura Miller does turn up her nose at me. I like books in which people are kind to each other, like Les Miserables. I tear up every time I read that whole first part about the priest and I don’t care if you judge me.

I did love that the book had a layered portrayal of the problems of poverty: not presenting easy solutions, and not sentimentalizing people, and not giving a pass to the people who refuse to see the layers of problems that lead to poverty. And if I didn’t already love J. K. Rowling forever (WHICH I DO; let there never be any mistake about that; cf., my entire childhood), I would love her forever for writing a book in which the child protection worker is not only not evil and malicious, but is actually going out of her way to help her clients. And even the subsidiary child protection worker, who does not go out of her way to help her clients, is not portrayed as an evil person. Just overworked and exhausted.

(Shut up, entire rest of fiction including film, comics, and especially TV shows. Child protection workers are not evil, and they are not conspiring to take your protagonists’ kids. Nobody wants your protagonists’ rotten kids.)

Other reviews: These from the Book Blogs Search Engine. Iris has an interesting post about the release of the book; Amy has some thoughts about YA vs adult literature vis-a-vis Casual Vacancy; Natalie posted reading updates culminating in a review; Kerry is doing a readalong; and Alice loves the book so far and thinks I’m wrong (but I am very curious what she will make of the ending).

Review: The Secret to Lying, Todd Mitchell

I am writing this review from the wonderful coffee shop I frequent on weekend mornings, and there is a woman doing a crossword who just said “Who’s smart about children’s literature?” and then asked a question whose answer I did not know. Did not know! Even though I love children’s books! It was rather a blow to my self-esteem! If I don’t know the children’s books questions I don’t have any area of expertise. It made my heart sad.

What I am finding is that — leaving out Diana Wynne Jones, who is sui generis — I am not any longer able to do a steady diet of kids/YA books, even for just a week. Alas! for they often have such nice clear writing and straightforward storytelling, the latter of which I do not like to do without. Alas again! It is hard to find a sufficient quantity of grown-up books with clear storytelling! Although I did enjoy Some Kind of Fairy Tale and Tell the Wolves I’m Home quite an entire lot, all in one month.

Anyway. Doesn’t matter. Just is something I felt while reading, and articulated when I didn’t know the crossword.

The Secret to Lying is about a kid called James who goes off to boarding school (boarding school!), where he tells a big pack of lies (lies!) about his parents and background, in order to make himself seem tough and scary to his new classmates. He engages in numerous self-destructive behaviors, struggles with terrifyingly vivid dreams of fighting demons, and has IM conversations with a mystery classmate who claims that she is a ghost.

Eh. Not really my thing. The device of two teenagers IMing each other about how vapid and dishonest are the lives of all but just they two has cropped up too often in my YA reading lately. I think I am done with that device forever. Go read an Ayn Rand novel, you sullen teenagers! It won’t do harm to your political career later probably!

More generally, I never got a feel for the two main characters, James and the ghost girl who IMs him. James does all these self-destructive behaviors, to the dismay of his friends and relations, but it’s never really clear why he’s doing them. In an ideal world one should not respond to a protagonist’s every action with some version of “What’s your damage, Heather?” (I didn’t like Heathers and feel fine about the prospect of its sinking into oblivion as implied by an episode of Bunheads.)

The book just felt like Melina Marchetta-lite. Melina Marchetta-ish, but without the emotional heft.

(This lady’s crossword puzzle is being well and truly crowd-sourced. The milk delivery man just got in on the action. In fairness, Saturday crosswords are really hard.)

The only other review seems to be this one by Book Sp(l)ot Reviews, but let me know if I missed yours!

Review: A Long, Long Sleep, Anna Sheehan

In a way, I did this to myself. I should know by now that I do not like, and have never liked, science fictiony retellings of fairy tales. There’s just something about it that feels very deeply weird. Magic is magic and science is science, and — and — you know? It feels jarring. So I was setting myself up for disappointment in this, my first attempt to discern whether all Candlewick authors are as good as Patrick Ness and Melina Marchetta.

(Also because Patrick Ness and Melina Marchetta are really awesome.)

Rose Fitzroy wakes up after sixty years in stasis to find that the whole world has changed. Humanity has been through plague and pain and terror, and everyone Rose ever knew — her mother and father, her boyfriend Xavier — is long dead. Rose herself is rolling in money and utterly isolated; though the grandson of one of her parents’ former colleagues befriends her, she still feels conspicuous and out of place at school. And an illegal robot Inferius* is on a mission to destroy her.

I read — unfortunately for this book! — another young adult novel over the summer in which the heroine is unreliable because she has been made to feel worthless and trouble by the adults in her life; and the heroine of that book, although she could perceive no value in herself, was still an interesting and dynamic protagonist. So I know now that this trick is an attainable one, and that Sheehan just does not know how to do it. When Rose does something insane that arises from believing herself worthless, it doesn’t feel earned. When she doesn’t tell her foster parents that she was attacked by a killer robot Inferius**, it’s supposed to illustrate, I guess, how little she values and trusts herself? And I get that Sheehan is trying to show that Rose has had a job done on her head. It’s just done with a broad brush.

So obviously I wished for a different protagonist. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I would have been happy with a different protagonist from this same book set in this same world. As I was reading, I felt like there was such a good book contained within this one and trying to get out. Rose makes friends with a cyborg guy*** called Otto, and his backstory? Should totally have been the front story. I’m going to tell it to you so you can support me on this:

Otto and his brothers and sisters are a genetic experiment; they are fully sentient beings, but as far as the government is concerned they’re objects. Many of them died when Otto was younger (this is an example of the genetic experiment’s failures). There are all these legal questions about their personhood in the world, and most of them are dead, etc. Then the girl who will legally own them when she reaches the age of 18 wakes up from sixty years in stasis, and Otto becomes friends with her.

I mean, that is the story.

Come on. That’s the story. I want to write that story. I’m sad that’s not the story Sheehan was interested in telling and that as a consequence I had to sit through so much of people in the story going “But Rose, you’re so great and caring!” and Rose going “No no! I’m not! I’m terrible! What? Great and caring? Me?”

(Social Sister and my mumsy are rolling their eyes all the way out of their heads right now, but I hope they find this parenthetical aside sufficient evidence of self-awareness on my part. I KNOW OKAY?)

Well, this post is just all over the place. This is what always happens when the thesis of my review is “I wish this had been a different book with a different protagonist/premise/themes to explore/all of the above.” The instinct to rearrange and fix what’s already in there is, one optimistically presumes, proof that I chose the right profession.

Everyone else has already read this book; their reviews here. Sorry I’m slow on the uptake.

*Not its official name
**Still not what it’s really called; but since we’re on the subject, can we can about how excited we are about J. K. Rowling’s new book coming out this month? YAY.
***Not what the book calls him but we have been living in this world, y’all. We know what a cyborg is.

Review: Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

With sadness, I must at last admit to myself and the world that Michael Chabon’s fiction is not for me. I loved that one book of essays he wrote. I agree with the sensible, interesting things he says about genre fiction and fandom and family. I think it is cool the high regard in which he and his wife plainly hold each other. I am in like Flynn if that show they are writing for HBO where magicians fight Nazis or whatever comes to fruition. But with his fiction I’m afraid I have decided I shall have nothing further to do. There just is no point.

Wonder Boys is about a writer called Grady Tripp who’s working on an endless novel, and his wife has just left him, and his mistress is pregnant with his child. He befriends a weird young writer in one of his classes, James Leer, and maybe stops him from committing suicide?, but then James Leer kills Grady Tripp’s mistress’s dog, and steals her husband’s valuable jacket that used to belong to Marilyn Monroe, which is a weird thing for any one grown-ass person to want, let alone two separate ones. This leaves Grady Tripp in a pickle because he is not the sort of person to put on his big-girl panties and deal with it. He just drives about with the dead dog in the trunk of his car hoping that the problem will go away.

I have probably said before that I prefer characters who want something I can sympathize with. Having given it a lot of thought over the summer, I’ll modify that and say that I prefer characters who know what they want. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular something. It could be a particularly significant piece of paper, or a ship with black sails that’s crewed by the damned. Whatever! As long as the characters want it really really really badly, I will nearly always be on board. Or if the author is not good at showing what the character wants, then having the character want a relateable thing can work nearly as well. Success in portraying what the character wants can make up for an awful lot of stuff that wouldn’t otherwise be my cup of tea. Like Mary Renault? Her books are heavy on the description, and there is not always a lot of plot. But her protagonists — all of them — want the things they want with such keenness and clarity, and it’s captivating.

Nobody in Wonder Boys seems to know what they want in the slightest, or if they do think to want something, they don’t want it very much, and definitely not enough to take steps in the direction of getting it. And nobody seems to like each other either. It’s always like everyone’s just tolerating each other’s company. Grady Tripp picks up James Leer and helps him and carts him around for a while, and I guess it’s out of pity? It doesn’t seem to be that he finds the kid appealing or interesting. His interactions with his long-time friend Terry Crabtree are tinted with disgust and weariness on both sides. It is hard to like people in a book when nobody else in the book seems to like them.

Again, this is a big thing for me and fictional characters. I don’t enjoy spending time with characters that nobody else in the book sees anything good in. It’s tiring and frustrating. The kiss of death is not that a character is unlikeable. It’s when a character isn’t liked, ever, by anyone, not even a bit, not for any of her characteristics (I’m saying her out of a desire for gender equality, not because there are any significant female characters in Wonder Boys), that I get bored. If nobody in that world has anything good to say about that character, then why on earth would I want to hang out with them for the length of a novel? I present as proof The Secret History, one of my favorite novels of all time, in which no character is the slightest bit likeable. It works because I got to know them as the protagonist gets to know them, and I saw the qualities in each of them that the protagonist finds attractive. They’re still terrible people, but it turns out not to matter.

There is, moreover, a dead dog in the trunk of the protagonist’s car for the bulk of the novel. It stressed me out. I would have been okay with Grady Tripp deciding to fess up, even if he didn’t have the opportunity to do it immediately. And I would have been okay with Grady Tripp deciding to conceal the whole thing and bury the dog and pretend he never knew anything about it, even if I knew the truth was going to come out eventually. But his not deciding anything or even thinking very much about deciding anything, and then just driving around the whole book with a dog rotting in the trunk of his car, stressed me all the entire way out. Just pick a side, Grady Tripp! Confess or conceal!

(I admire decisiveness.)

Further, I often feel when reading Michael Chabon that his sentences are slightly undercooked. Like he worked very hard to make a big fancy meal for a lot of guests, and then stopped stirring and seasoning the meal just a smidge too soon, because everyone was there and it was time to go. Even when I admire a particular description he gives, which happens pretty regularly!, I feel like it’s so, so close to being just exactly the thing, but it’s not quite the thing, and almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

I have felt these feelings about three, now, of Michael Chabon’s novels, including his Masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Three is the magic number, y’all, and I’m calling it quits forever.

Other reviews: Stella Matutina; she treads softly; Book Maven’s Blog; The Book Brothel; Books and So Many More Books. Tell me if I missed yours, and I’ll add a link!

Not a Review: Attachments, Rainbow Rowell

Y’all, look, I like to suspend disbelief as much as the next girl and probably more than some. I’m willing to roll with an awful lot of fictional punches, and the reason for this is that I know that if you don’t accept the premise of a book, you are refusing to engage with it on the most basic level. There is then no point in reading it, and if you insist on reading it (maybe because, as in this case, you hope that the book will somehow make its nonsense premise work), there is subsequently no point talking about it. That makes you the person who reads Harry Potter and is like, “Um, magic wands? Are stupid.”

So here is why, in spite of its charming qualities, I am not reviewing Attachments: If I worked at a company that monitored my email, and if in spite of that fact I persisted in sending very very personal emails to my coworker/best friend all the time because I guess I didn’t want to send those emails on AOL or whatever people were using in 1999, and if then the person that monitored company email turned out to be reading my emails all along and developing a crush on me on that basis, the only single response that I could possibly have to that would be, “Ew, never contact me.” That is an irredeemably creepy thing to do, and having the guy feel guilty and worry that it might be creepy does not make it uncreepy, and having the girl whose email is being read develop an in-person crush on the guy who’s reading her email to the point that she follows him home one time also does not make it uncreepy.

Because nothing in the world could make that uncreepy. Because it is really creepy.

However, the people have been saying that Rainbow Rowell’s new book, Eleanor and Park, is delightful in all the ways that a book can be delightful, and I am posting this post to let you know that apart from the irredeemable creepiness of Attachments’ premise, which kept me from engaging with it in any meaningful way because of what I will from now on call premise denial, I could definitely see the potential for delightfulness and emotional truth in Rainbow Rowell’s writings. So I will still read Eleanor and Park when it comes out here, and maybe you should too.

[Programming note: When I say “all the people” have been saying that Eleanor and Park is good, I mean Linda Holmes from Monkeysee and Alice from Reading Rambo. But whatever, those are two high-quality people whose opinions have weight with me.]

Your takeaway from this non-review post: I made up the term “premise denial,” and you should all use it.

Review: The Defining Decade, Meg Jay, PhD

You know what I’m happy about? I’m happy that before reading The Defining Decade — which was judgmentally delivered to me at my office without any explanation I could discern as to why it was being delivered to me, so I could only conclude that the universe thinks I’m doing my twenties wrong (which I am not) and would like to help me out with it — I saw the second episode of the HBO show Girls, in which Lena Dunham’s character glances at a relationship-rules book and says that she hate-read it in the Detroit airport once. I’m glad that happened so I could have the word “hate-read” in my working memory for writing this post.

Disclaimer: I do not hate Meg Jay, PhD, although I feel awkward when authors put “PhD” on the front of their books because it makes me think that their PhD is in something completely unrelated to the book they’ve written. I instantly suspected Meg Jay of having a PhD in Puppeteering or something, but no, her PhD is in the perfectly reasonable and germane areas of clinical psychology and gender studies. Just FYI.

It is just that The Defining Decade — which I hate-read over the course of four subway rides, because it’s very short and quick — is extremely judgey about things that I don’t need to be judged about. This book is not Varsity Adulthood. It’s barely Junior Varsity Adulthood. It’s basically just, Hey kids, take your lives seriously, time is ticking by, which is a message I have already absorbed. The book clearly wasn’t aimed at me and apart from some next-level retirement planning, which is on my to-do list I swear, I am doing okay in all the relevant areas. I have a job I like that employs skills I developed over my academic career. I do not treat my work life or my romantic life as a rehearsal for the future (that’s what college was for). I did not go into debt in the course of acquiring my bachelor’s degree in English, and thus I am not spending these years paying down thousands of dollars of school debt. I am doing fine.

You see how that last paragraph was sort of self-righteous? That’s me overcompensating for how incredibly judged The Defining Decade made me feel. Because I sort of have that thing where I want all the real grown-ups to approve of me. I wanted to howl “No! Not me, Meg Jay, PhD! I’m doing fine! I’m not aimless, I’m fine, I’m fine!” Whenever new people got on the subway and were near me, I wanted to say, “Excuse me. You may observe that I am reading this book and conclude that I am not doing a good job at my life right now, but in fact I am hate-reading this book and concluding that I am doing just fine. Thank you for your time.” But I did not do either of these things. I am not a crazy person.

What you should take away from this post: I’m fine. I just crave approval.

Review: Before I Go to Sleep, S. J. Watson

Thanks, blogosphere, for having the exact opinion of Before I Go to Sleep that I had my own self. As usual y’all were right about everything.

Before I Go to Sleep is about a woman called Christine who developed amnesia following some sort of accident (she can’t remember). Every morning when she wakes up, her memories of the previous day are gone. She doesn’t remember her husband Ben, or her doctor, or any of her friends or experiences from her old life. On a good day she can remember as recently as her college years. Every day, Ben patiently explains her old life to her once again; and every night when she goes to sleep, her memories wipe clean. But one day her doctor tells her about a journal that he’s been having her keep, and when she opens it the first words in it say DON’T TRUST BEN.

(Ruh-roh! Plot thickens!)

So then the rest of the book is about trying to figure out her life before and what happened in it, and whether Ben is on the up-and-up, or whether possibly her doctor is the one not on the up-and-up, and what kind of an accident was it exactly and where are all her friends and what is happening during her days? Memento-style! (Sort of.)

Since I’ve mentioned Memento, I’ll admit that Memento, as a work of fiction that deals with short-term memory loss, was my point of reference for this book, and Memento is pretty m.f. great. Memento makes your spine tingle each time it chooses to deal out a revelation about what’s really (or apparently) going on. And Before I Go to Sleep just doesn’t have the same impact. Christine discovers some shocking things over the course of the book, but none of them was set up in a way that the revelation actually shocked me. Even the huge reveal at the end, that the man claiming to be Ben isn’t really Ben, didn’t make me gasp.

Then the ending (this is what the whole blogosphere was so, so right about) was way too pat and happy. The son’s alive! Real Ben wants to see her! Her college friend is back in her life! Blah. None of the emotional stuff felt real, and I didn’t care if Christine got her memory back or lived happily ever after.

In sum, a psychological thriller that failed to thrill me.