Review: The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst

Author Octavia Frost has come up with the idea of rewriting the endings to each of her previous seven novels, and to put all the revised endings together as a brand new book, called The Nobodies Album. As she is traveling to deliver the manuscript to her agent, she sees a news item saying that her estranged son, Milo, has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend Bettina. Octavia and Milo (who is a rock star) have not spoken in four years, for reasons that are not immediately made clear; but when she sees that her son is in trouble, she drops everything and travels across the country to help.

Almost exactly what I wanted! I read The Nobodies Album because Kim mentioned that it was good, and I fancied a mystery that I wouldn’t be able to put down. The Nobodies Album had a lot of things going for it: The whodunit aspect of the mystery was, in a way, an afterthought; it made the rest of the plot happen but it wasn’t (for me) what created the suspense. The suspenseful stuff was the family secrets, what the Frost family’s tragedy had been all those years ago, and why Octavia and Milo fell out of contact with each other. Again, for me, because the kind of suspense I enjoy is emotional suspense.

Pankhurst is good at keeping this sort of secret without its feeling like a cheat that we haven’t found it out yet. Octavia knows what’s happened, and she doesn’t feel the need to describe it because she knows already!, as do all the other characters!, so she only hints at it obliquely over the course of the book. Interspersed with the main plot are excerpts from Octavia’s book: Jacket copy for each, then the last chapter, then the revised ending she has since written. Each of these adds layers and emotional weight to the nature of Octavia’s loss and grief, so that the reveals, when they happen, feel totally earned. Furthermore, I love it when books include “documents” from the characters’ lives to supplement the main narration. I wish that could happen more frequently.

I would have liked, though, to see a slightly meatier story. The Nobodies Album isn’t a long book, and when you account for the segments taken up by excerpts from Octavia’s novels, the main plotline is almost a novella. And really, not much happens. Octavia goes out to California, she has a few conversations with the people in her son’s life, there’s a funeral for Bettina, more chat, and then they figure out who did the murder and how and why. I can’t say exactly what else I’d have liked to see happen, but something! Something to make the primary plotline of the book feel less slight.

Thanks, Kim, for the recommendation! I really enjoyed it!

There are a plethora of other reviews. You may inspect them here.

Review: The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews

Sometimes I think my sense of humor is broken. Take something like The Royal Tenenbaums, which most everyone seems to think is hilarious with a capital H. (Query: When saying something is [adjective] with a capital [A], should [adjective] be capped, or does that make the “with a capital [A]” superfluous?) I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in high school or so, and it just made me feel sad. How is it funny? It’s not funny! It’s sad! Their lives are just sad!

So when I read a review of a dysfunctional-family book that claims it’s soooo funny, just a laugh a minute, I am always rather suspicious. In The Flying Troutmans, Hattie Troutman comes back from France, following a break-up with her pretentious boyfriend, to find her sister Min in a state of collapse. (Min has been suicidal, and very occasionally homicidal, ever since Hattie’s birth.) Unable to decide what to do about Min, Hattie takes Min’s two children, eleven-year-old Thebes and fifteen-year-old Logan, on a cross-country road trip to find the kids’ father, who skipped town years ago. No one is quite sure what’s going to happen when the father gets found.

Actually, The Flying Troutmans was funny. If it hadn’t done that cutesy/nauseating thing of ignoring the existence of quotation marks, I’d have been totally on board with the funny. See:

But, said Logan, a fifteen-year-old could technically live on his own, right?

Okay, bad times are gonna roll, I thought. Logan is planning to run away before we find Cherkis.

No, a fifteen-year-old cannot live on his own, I said.

Pippi Longstocking wasn’t even fifteen, said Thebes, and she–

Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.

And she was Swedish, said Logan.

So there would have been a solid safety net of social programs to help keep her afloat, I said. It doesn’t work here.

Heeheehee. I love Pippi Longstocking but, y’all, I desperately hate it when authors choose to eschew quotation marks. It is one of the most peevish of my pet peeves. Why would you ever not use them? Do you just not care that Jesus placed them on earth for our particular consumption? Do you sneer upon the value of correctly placed punctuation and its glorious organizational capacities? USE DAMN PUNCTUATION DAMMIT.

Damn punctuation aside, The Flying Troutmans was very funny. Logan and Thebes and Hattie were all intriguing and realistic characters, plainly fond of each other but not in a Lifetime Movie family snuggles way. That they weren’t constantly talking about their family bonds made it all the more touching when you caught a glimpse of their genuine affection for each other. I particularly loved Hattie’s conversations, or attempts at conversations, with Logan: perfect fifteen-year-old conversations.


(I know what you’re thinking. The punctuation thing was my BUT. Whatever, I can have two problems with the same book.)

BUT, I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending, and The Flying Troutmans has one. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking that I couldn’t imagine any way the book could end well. Hattie’s sister Min, the kids’  mother, has been trying to kill herself since Hattie was born, and when Hattie visits her in the hospital at the start of the book, Min asks Hattie to help her die. I couldn’t see it ending well, and yet it did. I resent this from Miriam Toews even as I wish to read more of her work.

(trapunto, don’t read this. I think it would piss you off.)

Did y’all see The Royal Tenenbaums? Did you think it was funny? Would you rather have a happy ending that’s not warranted, or an unhappy ending that pays out the issues the book has raised, but makes you feel all sad and empty inside?

Other reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room (thanks for the recommendation!)
Fleur Fisher in Her World
Literary License
Back to Books
The Writer’s Pet

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

Have y’all ever seen Wonderfalls? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s basically Dead Like Me with a better premise, a better ensemble cast (absolutely no disrespect meant to Mandy Patinkin, whom I adore — it’s the dynamics between the characters that are better, really), and a stronger sense of what kind of a show it is. Where Dead Like Me gets a bit too grim, and Pushing Daisies can be a little too sweet, Wonderfalls finds the perfect balance. Naturally it’s the one of the three that ran for the shortest time. Anyway, there is this scene in Wonderfalls where the popular girl from the protagonist’s high school is talking about her husband.

Popular girl: I mean, he’s great if I was going to make a list of what I wanted in a husband. Which I did actually. Well, Robert is that list.
Random dude who’s in love with her: He’s the man of your dreams.
Popular girl: He’s the man of my list.

Since I first watched Wonderfalls in 2006, I have had occasion to make reference to this moment on many, many occasions. Mexican food is the food of Legal Sister Anna Banana’s list. Social Sister is the girl of Captain Hammer’s list. (HA HA HA, just kidding, Social Sister! I am sure you are really the girl of his dreams!) And as it happens, Kate Morton is the author of my list. She has got dual timelines; family secrets that are slowly uncovered; Victorian England and Edwardian England and England between the wars; and, in the case of The Forgotten Garden, a cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

But look, I just sailed and waded (respectively) through The Hand that First Held Mine and The Children’s Book, and although I was not entirely happy with either of them, Kate Morton’s writing and plotting simply don’t compare. (Writing and plotting in the case of O’Farrell; just writing with Byatt, sorry, Byatt, I thought Possession was brilliant though) About two-thirds of the way through The House at Riverton, which was a delightful guilty pleasure with enormous mugs of Costa coffee and chocolate twists, I started being deeply annoyed by Morton’s penchant for writing all-predicate sentences (“She paused. Angled the magnifying glass to face the sun. Caught abruptly on fire.”). Man doth not live by predicates alone. This has gotten better in The Forgotten Garden; nevertheless, every time she did it, I found it maddening out of all proportion to how terrible a flaw it really is.

Leaving out my passionate bias against disregard, for the sake of dramatic effect, of perfectly reasonable rules of writing in English (I have my eye on you, Cormac McCarthy), Kate Morton and I simply do not click. The way the characters react to the events of the book does not fall into line with my reaction to the same events, so I am always finding the characters melodramatic or weirdly apathetic. You know how with some authors, they can imbue an apparently tiny event with so much emotional depth that you ache for the characters? Kate Morton is, for me, the opposite of that. Massive events in her books, with severe repercussions all around, utterly fail to move me.

And the cameo by Frances Hodgson Burnett was hamfisted. She shows up and someone tells her about the hidden garden, and she has to go see it, of course, and when they explain it’s the particular garden of an invalid girl, she says something like “A garden that helps to cure a frail little girl! How fascinating!”

Yep. It’s the book of my list.

Review: The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt

Have you heard of this book? It is as long as the prime meridian. I am not even lying. It follows several families of (mostly) forward-thinking artists and businesspeople from the late 1890s to the early part of the First World War. It is eight trillion pages of thick, lush prose, and if a book blogger found, as she drew closer to the end, that she simply could not bear to wade through the war poetry of a character she never felt lived up to his full potential of interestingness, well, you can understand how that would happen.

I sound crabby now, but I did not begin this way. A.S. Byatt won my heart early. She did it thus:

He believed Lord Rosebery’s name had been mentioned in the sad events surrounding the recent trial. It had been rumoured that the sad death of Lord Queensberry’s eldest son — not Lord Alfred Douglas, but Lord Drumlanrig — had been not a shooting accident but an act of self-destruction, designed — they did say — to protect Lord Rosebery’s good name?

This was indeed rumoured about poor Francis. (Lord Queensberry’s father also died in a “hunting accident” that was believed to be a suicide. Do you think that’s where Francis got the idea from? Or was this just standard practice amongst suicidal peers of the realm?) I do not know that I buy into the story that Lord Queensberry used this rumour to blackmail the government into prosecuting Oscar Wilde to the full extene of the law. I think he believed it, but of course he didn’t need to think someone was screwing his son in order to call them “Jew queer” in letters. Oh, Marquess of Queensberry.

Then I got a bit bogged down in how many characters there were. They all get introduced at the same time, at a Midsummer’s party hosted by the (arguably) main characters. There are so many characters. There are fifty thousand characters. But at the beginning, I was okay with it. At the beginning, I was interested in finding out what was going to happen to these characters, how the network of relationships was going to develop and change as the years went by. I loved Philip, the young artist caught sleeping in and taking sketches at the museum at the very beginning, and I loved how taking him creating a whole series of fresh new relationships with different gender and age and class dynamics. I loved Dorothy for deciding she wanted to be a doctor, and I thought Tom had serious potential as a very cool character.

At a certain point, however, I got frustrated. In part, I was frustrated that the children all got split up, and I didn’t get to see their relationships growing. That wasn’t the main thing though. I can pinpoint the moment at which I stopped loving the book and started wishing A.S. Byatt would get on with it. It was when Tom left school and became suddenly all gamekeepery and bucolic. I wanted to slap him, and every time he showed up again, I wanted to slap him harder.

But Byatt was wonderful at times:

“It is a terrible thing to be a woman. You are told people like to look at you — as though you have a duty to be the object of…the object of…And then, afterwards, if you are rejected, if what you…thought you were worth…is after all not wanted…you are nothing.”

She gave a little shrug, and pulled herself together, and said “Poor Elsie,” in an artificial, polite, tea-party voice, though she had not offered, and did not offer, to make tea.

Moments like this came close to making up for Byatt’s intense long-windedness, aggravating gamekeeper character Tom, and determination to throw into her book every Victorian thing except the Victorian kitchen sink. It isn’t that I object to a cameo by Oscar Wilde, even a cameo where he is pathetic and wretched; but toward the end of the book, I got tired of so many Victorian and Edwardian figures showing up and strolling around for no particular reason.

I need to go back and reread Possession. I didn’t read the poetry in that one either, but it had a very compelling plot that kept me absolutely enthralled all through the novel, rather than through only half of it like The Children’s Book. Sigh. Well, anyway, this highly ambivalent review brought to you by the clash of my love of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with a horrific preponderance of deathless prose and a small but significant number of missed emotional beats.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Book Snob
Farm Lane Books Blog
Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
Vulpes Libris
The Indextrious Reader
books i done read
Cornflower Books
Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog

Let me know if I missed yours!

Review: The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

Family tragedy book song time! (I’m kidding. I have not composed a family tragedy book song. YET.) Maggie O’Farrell’s newest book, The Hand that First Held Mine, focuses on two sets of characters in two different times: Alexandra (Sandra, Lexie), who goes off to London to seek her fortune (in the 1950s), and Elina and Ted, who have just come through a dangerous pregnancy and are struggling to recover from it (in the present day). If you suppose there is no connection between them, I can only assume you have never read a book before.

The Hand that First Held Mine is the third Maggie O’Farrell book I have read in my life, and thus far I have enjoyed all of them tremendously, in spite of the use of present tense for a third-person narrator. My fondness for Maggie O’Farrell should in no way be taken as an endorsement of the use of present tense with a third-person narrator. I still hate it. Maggie O’Farrell succeeds in spite of it, not because of. Writers ye be warned.

As plots go, The Hand that First Held Mine was slightly less interesting to me than the other two. Maggie O’Farrell wins my heart by telling you the end and the beginning, and working backward to the middle. Since this is an exact reflection of the order in which I typically read my books, I am strongly in favor of it. She tells you the events, and then makes you care like crazy by slowly revealing all the emotional reasons that made the events significant. With Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone, I was hell-bent on finding out how the end had come about, and I felt so satisfied with the way O’Farrell paid out the emotional moments that explained why people  behaved the way they did. In this one, the revelations didn’t seem to need any explanation, and although I was enjoying it, I wasn’t sure why the book kept going. I thought O’Farrell was carrying on with the book because she was going to try to redeem this one character who was being unfairly demonized (in my opinion), but I read and read all the way to the end, and nope, that character never got redeemed.

All of this sounds terribly uncomplimentary. First I complain about the present tense (I stand by that), and then I complain that the book was pointless. I’m so mean! I promise I enjoyed it, and if you’ve liked Maggie O’Farrell’s past books, I am sure you will enjoy this one too! Only if you’re reading her for the first time, maybe start with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is fascinating and suspenseful and has a lovely ambiguous ending. Then when you get to The Hand that First Held Mine, you will have fondness for Maggie O’Farrell stored up, and you will be able to enjoy this book on its merits without needing it to be the best shining example of Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderfulness.

By the way, I really felt this:

She is here, she’s in London: any minute now the technicolor part of her life will commence, she is sure, she is certain — it has to.

A reviewer for the Daily Mail (PS, Britain, I love your print culture) apparently said that Maggie O’Farrell, like Daphne du Maurier before her, stirs up primal fears in the female subconscious. Is that what she does? I do not feel that primal fears have been stirred up in my female subconscious; but it’s subconscious so I guess I wouldn’t know about it if they had. Except I think my dreams would have alerted me. My dreams do not typically allow subconscious fears to escape my notice.

More reviews are here. I know I have been lax about posting links to other reviews, and I would be a better blogger if I were doing that. The thing is that I have a very long commute in which to read books, but very little time with my computer in which to write about them. So my backlog is backed up very far back. Today is Saturday? I’ve just written three reviews and scheduled them throughout the week, and I still have two more to write up. Have to hurry!

Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly

I’ve said before that I like the kind of novel where you have two sets of characters in two different time periods, and the novel goes back and forth between them. Especially when one of the sets of characters (the modern one) is researching the other set (the old-time-y one.) So when I saw that Jennifer Donnelly, beloved of the blogosphere (that is you) for her Rose books and then Northern Lights, had written a book of this sort, I was…well, I was mildly intrigued. I thought I might get it from the library sometime if I remembered to.

Then I got a new job, and I had to move away from everything that is familiar to me, and go off into the unknown and do everything new and different. Then Indie Sister came into town to bid me farewell, and we went to the bookshop, and it turns out that when we are stressed, we buy things. Like books. When we were at the Bongs & Noodles, I saw Revolution and I was like I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY FOR MY LIFE IS INCOMPLETE WITHOUT IT.

My life was probably not incomplete without this book, but it was a pretty damn good book. It is about this girl called Andi who is struggling to recover from her little brother’s recent death. She has become completely self-destructive and miserable, so her parents decide she must go off to Paris with her scientist father, there to do her homework and start behaving like a real person. While she is there she discovers a diary belonging to this acrobat trickster actress girl from the French Revolution.

Initially I found Andi trying. The build-up to the revelation of what had happened to make Andi so embittered and miserable went on and on and on, and by the time it got properly revealed (as Jill said), Andi would have had to have orchestrated 9/11 for me to feel like all the angst and stress were merited. The book was slow to start, I admit, but once Andi got to Paris and discovered the diary and met the interesting people she met, I couldn’t put it down. I was so impressed that Donnelly managed to make the characters and plotlines of both her main characters emotionally interesting. Even the minor characters were pretty well fleshed-out.

There was just this one thing that kept me from loving it. I hugely did not like the way the book handled mental illness – or actually, the way it handled mental health facilities. It was very much all this “If Van Gogh  had had Prozac we wouldn’t have his beautiful art” and, like, mental health professionals willfully refuse to understand you, and the characters getting “put” into mental institutions even though THEY WERE GETTING BETTER OMG WHY ARE YOU DEPRIVING THEM OF THEIR ART. It wasn’t even a thoughtful version of these arguments, which I would have liked reading, but rather the typical, simplistic, kneejerk version that you get in every third book and film and TV show. I gnashed my teeth in anger.

Otherwise very good! My introduction to Jennifer Donnelly was a slightly qualified success! And now that I have my very own brand-new New York Public Library card, I can go forth and investigate the rest of her books. Hurrah!

Who else has read it:

my Mumsy (but she hasn’t reviewed it yet. Too bad for you.)
Rhapsody in Books
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
Good Books & Good Wine
Killin’ Time Reading
Love YA Lit
The Fourth Musketeer
Book Sake

Tell me if I missed yours!

Drab lunacy

My older sister is a big fan of the simple food. She likes rice, and cheese, and meat. You would think that Mexican food would be perfect for her, since it’s all just different ways of putting together rice and meat and cheese and sometimes potatoes and beans. But she hates Mexican food. All of it. Won’t eat it. The ingredients are perfect for her, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

That is how I felt about Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans. Its component parts were all good: Matthew Kneale, award-winning author; family drama; unreliable narrator; road trip; narrator fond of stories about ancient Romans. Nine-year-old Lawrence and his sister Jemima are taken by their mother on a trip to Rome, trying to escape from their father, who is trying to poison them (or something). Lawrence’s mother used to live in Rome, so she has plenty of friends able to take them in for a few days at a time, while they try to figure out what to do next. But the trouble that they feared in Scotland may have followed them to Rome.

Still, the book just didn’t do it for me. I was dissatisfied. Either the unreliability of the narrator was too obvious or too vague. The stories from ancient Rome that Lawrence told were too plainly applicable, or insufficiently so. Mostly, and y’all know this is true from how much I liked White Is for Witching, my preferences lie in the latter direction, vague over obvious, even if that means I end up not knowing what’s up. When We Were Romans tended to tilt the other way, and I turned up my nose. Another problem for me was that I didn’t find the story compelling enough. It was drab, in spite of the craziness the family was facing, and I like my running-away-from-home stories to be colorful. This is the second running away from home story I’ve failed to enjoy in the month of August. Any suggestions for a better one? I like running away from home stories! I’m sure I do, I always have!

I would also appreciate suggestions for a good book about the Brontës. Lynne Reid Banks’s Dark Quartet was as unsatisfying as When We Were Romans, or more so. This lent strength to two things I already suspected: first, that I am in the mood for fantasy right now, and second, that the Brontës were an unpleasing combination of lunacy and drabness. But I may be wrong. The Brontës may be far more interesting than I’m giving them credit for. So I would like your recommendations. I will read any book about any Brontë (not right now; later, when I’m no longer in the mood for only fantasy), if y’all think it’s good.

Mothernight, Sarah Stovell

Sarah Stovell didn’t mock me like Martha Baillie. Sarah Stovell’s back-cover quotation about time was meant to console me. Her back cover quotation said “I was beginning to realize that time didn’t move forward here. It just spun round and round, circling an old date, endlessly.” Bad for the characters. Good for me. Or it would be if time really worked that way, which it doesn’t, and you can tell because I am now back home working on finding a job. But Sarah Stovell actually knows this. Later in Mothernight she says “Time is cruel. A relentless one-way street to the end of the world. It would be easier if life, like botched knitting, could be undone.” Sarah Stovell understands me.

Mothernight is about a girl called Leila, who was sent away from her family as a little girl, following the death of her half-brother. She has spent her life at a boarding school, rarely going home because her stepmother hates her. Only recently she has fallen in love with a girl called Olivia, and it has been arranged that Leila and Olivia will go to Leila’s home for a visit. Everyone at Leila’s home is tense and awkward, and there is an angry, manipulative, dysfunctional neighbor girl called Rosie, on whom Leila seems strangely dependent. The writing was lovely. As soon as I started the book I liked the way Stovell writes. Here’s the first paragraph:

Along with a few of the things that held them together–a bank statement, a quote for repairing the ivy damage at the side of the house, advance notice of September’s increase in school fees–the letter that was inevitably bound to pull them apart arrived in the morning’s post.

Stovell writes with an economy of style that I admire. I wish she had written six more books. Mothernight is depressing as hell, and by the end of it I started to feel like Stovell was being grim just to be grim, but I would still read six more books by her because I like her writing. Here is what Olivia says about Leila:

She never said Dad. She always said My father, and I thought it sounded so possessive and yet so remote, as though he might have been one of those ravens at the Tower of London–the ones that had had their wings clipped so they couldn’t fly away even though no one knew what they were there for, or what good they did. They only knew they were important, and it would be a disaster if they ever let them go.

The characters in this book are wonderful and vivid, and I loved it that Leila and Olivia’s relationship was hardly a thing at all. They get in trouble at school, a little, and Leila’s stepmother starts out a little sneery of them, but mostly, that it’s a same-sex relationship doesn’t make a huge amount of different. Olivia’s devoted to Leila, and when Leila isn’t having a family-tragedy-downward-spiral, she’s devoted to Olivia too.

Much of your enjoyment of this book will depend on whether you enjoy this type of book. Myself, I like books where there is a family tragedy that nobody wants to talk about, and everyone acts like if they don’t talk about it with sufficient persistence, it will go away; but then, aha, you can’t get rid of something by pretending it didn’t happen, so eventually it All Comes Out. That is one of my favorite types of books. Even better if (not the case here) the book starts out by telling you the ultimate outcome and then you spend the rest of the book finding out why. Saves me having to read the end.

Oh, and also, I appreciate having this pointed out. This does not get pointed out frequently enough:

I wasn’t allowed outside the garden and that, too, was because of strangers. They told us about them at school. The staff were vigilant about it, every year. They never said a word about the ones who weren’t strangers. They never said a word about the people you knew. The ones in your house. Rosie knew, though. Rosie understood statistics.

True story. Thank you, Sarah Stovell. Please write more books. I will read them even if they are grim.

Other reviews:

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
My Favorite Books

Also, an interesting but spoilery interview with Sarah Stovell over at Vulpes Libris.

Let me know if I missed your link!