Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blurry Sex

This is an odd topic I've come across in a few books I've been reading this month.  I don't feel that when reading a book I should have to wonder whether or not two characters just had sex, and yet recently I've found myself having to re-read passages more than once to clarify the question.  Some things definitively happen in fiction: no one kinda dies, or kinda gave birth.  Sex is much the same. 

This kind of nebulous writing appeared in a brief passage in Sweethearts, and Everybody has Everything; both of which I loved.  Both of those authors are extremely competent and capable of communicating extreme detail with minimal words should they choose to do so; and so I feel the vague 'Did they just get it on?' atmosphere they created in their respective books must have been intentional.  Only I don't think there is any benefit to casting this cloud of obscurity. 

In Sweethearts, I tried--and failed--to excuse the passage by telling myself it's YA fiction and sex isn't the focus.  I couldn't let that pass as the hook-ups in that book were more than likely psychologically damaging and the act happened for wrong reasons.  In the case of Everybody has Everything considering the concrete realities that the book was depicting from start to finish for the life of me I don't know why 'oral sex' couldn't be communicated in some more clear fashion. 

Authors can be artistic and vague when talking about sex, they can blunt; but reader confusion is never a good thing; especially so since sex really ain't that subtle.  I wish I had marked those passages so I could quote them here but this complaint brings to mind a grip from a review I did awhile ago for Breakable You.

"     "They had spent the afternoon on the couch, though, come to think of it, he couldn't quite remember whether they'd actually, technically, made love.  They'd done something, but he couldn't quite remember what."  I don't even know what that means.  Perhaps if we replace 'made love' with 'bad acid trip' I could make sense of this, but when people aren't drugged they definitively know whether or not they 'technically' made love or not.  No matter how pleasant having sex is, it isn't that subtle.     "

That's how I felt then, and concerning blurry sex that is still how I feel now.  I don't need exacting detail or erotica.  Hell, the page break in Gone with Wind is one of the more profound sex scenes in fiction that never actually happens on the page but it is communicated with zero confusion.  If it is important to your story and character background, make that information clear. 

As The Allman Brothers sing, 'Please don't keep me Wonderin.' 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad

"There was money to be released.  There was a court date pending.  There was suddenly a fleet of people in their home, in their bank accounts, her office.  Ana had begun to feel like a criminal, as if she were trying to steal this boy who had, in fact, been given to her, shockingly, without her request, even her knowledge.  Between a lunch and a dinner, Ana and James had become stewards of a human being."  Page 65

Children represent so much in today's society.  They can be a problem, even the downfall of a particular person should they have too many or not raise them to societal norms of how a child 'should' be brought up.  They can be the pride and joy or point of bragging for others.  Society judges people with children and those without: are the parents married, single, divorced, are they a good or ideal parent; and while these questions and thoughts are raised in people's minds, they are very rarely--if ever--discussed.  Everybody has Everything deals with what it means to be a parent and ultimately what it means to not want to be one.  It is the most contemporary and honest piece of fiction I've come across in a long time dealing with a universal issue that mostly flies under the radar. 

I'm at the beginning of the juncture in life when people ask about my plans to get married, settle down, have children.  (Much like the characters in the book I resist the near homicidal urges that these insensitive questions instill; only asked by those selfish and pretentious enough to assume that you're not happy as you are, or rather, as they are.)  I'm thirty-two years old, (my two and half year old nephew told me a few weeks ago that I was 'probably the oldest person ever') single, and have no children and just like everyone else in the world, people judge me based on this criteria.  It was remarkably easy to read Everyone Has Everything and relate to the characters: I see parts of myself in some, my friends, and real life people I know in others.  So much so, that I mentally renamed characters in the book with people I know from my own life. 

Ana and James are married, successful, working professionals who are unable to conceive a child.  Their status as 'married without children' is the single defining point of their relationship.  They each bring a unique background and preconceived ideas as to what it means to be a parent to their marriage.  After miscarriages and confirmation of Ana's 'inhospitable' womb they each get comfortable to the idea of marriage and life without children.  Ana chides her pride concerning her looks; knowing she doesn't merely look 'good for her age' but good in a further way: as she says, her body hasn't been ruined by having children.  James is made to endures multiple, obnoxious, public displays of maternity where women with strollers travelling in hordes, talking louder than necessary, and pushing everyone who isn't a mom with a baby away while remaining wholly oblivious to the atmosphere of repulsion they create.  These scenes seem to dominate parts of their world and serve as a constant reminder of their compulsive desire to defend their childless status.  (A particular scene in a coffee shop was so real that I've shared it with friends; all of whom could commiserate with James' pain.)  They both condemn the infuriating hypocrisy of fertile couples attitudes toward their capacity to both; have children and endlessly complain about them.  (A privilege denied to Ana and James.)  "It surprised Ana how often mothers played up their misery, as if she would find it comforting to pretend they would switch places with her."

Perhaps you can tell from my writing that I share many of Ana and James' points of view.
Ana recognizes she needs James as he is the embodiment of all the youth that was stolen from her own childhood.  His refusal to grow up is the source of Ana's attachment and all that she finds contemptible.  And then--quite out of nowhere--there is Finn.  A two year old boy whose father died in a car crash that left his mother in a coma.  Ana and James had forgotten that in case of the worst that they agreed to take guardianship of the boy.

While Finn, who is thrust in the middle of Ana and James' lives, is certainly the fulcrum of the story he is hardly the main character.  In fact, figuring out who this book is about is a bit of a chore.  Ana and James have built safe and comfortable lives for themselves; secure in the knowledge that Ana is infertile and adoption is a paperwork pipe dream; and then they have a child.  Not even a new born where there is a learning curve to watch, observe and develop but a two year old who has somehow come to understand he'll never see his father again, and that mommy is indefinitely unavailable.  James doesn't so much dive into fatherhood, rather he seems tailor made for it; a combination of desire and innate know-how.  Ana regards Finn as a oddity between repulsion and at best a nuisance and she knows from the beginning that her indifference to Finn will prove a harbinger to some tumultuous event in her life.

"Ana rooted around for some feeling to match James's, but came up with only a causal affection for this boy, for all boys, a mild curiosity that didn't demand investigation.  Hadn't there been a time when the sight of a pregnant woman had caused her to look away, yearning?  Hadn't she hidden in that hotel room after the final miscarriage and wept?  A chill crept over her body: She needed to find that person again, or James would be lost to her."  Page 54 

Finn changes every aspect of their relationship down to the smallest details that neither ever though they would have to consider.  Ana's job keeps her working for extremely long hours, and James--while his heart is in the right place and his relationship with Finn is phenomenal--is a bit too irresponsible (and has a bit too much fun too often) to be the sole care taker of a toddler. 

They grow apart; James is laid off; people on the periphery of their lives suddenly become very attractive; yet Finn remains: demanding and impossible to ignore. 

While Ana remains on the sidelines of the novel's events (it's James who visits Finn's mom in the hospital multiple times a week, takes Finn to day care, bathes him and puts him to bed among others chores that come with having children) it's her conflicted feelings for Finn and James' eager, blind of acceptance of Finn, that leads Ana to pushing James away.  It takes time, but Ana comes to realize what she deems a monstrous, and socially unacceptable truth: that she is a woman; she doesn't want children; and that there is nothing wrong with these fact coinciding.  While they both act out and exercise detrimental steps in their relationship I felt there was an undercurrent of 'James is ruining this marriage,' that didn't sit well with me.  Added to which Onstad's exploration of the male mindset, particularly in regards to sex, I found nothing short of bizarre, and a head-scratching source of entertainment that made me curious as to her source material or if the creation of James is just where her mind's imagination lead her.

There were a few near cliched extramarital affairs that I'd have rather seen avoided, with Ana'a subordinates taking interest in James personality and Ana's awkward--if not outright bad--flirting with the chaplain at her mother's nursing home.   There are plenty of ways relationships can grow apart without introducing sex with other people (like having a two year old dropped into your life), but it seems readers like sex so authors work it in when possible.  (It would be nice to see other routes explored.)  
The scenarios, the story arch, background and particularly the characters were all portrayed with an intense visceral feeling that made me think, 'I know these people.'  I was particularly happy at the book's conclusion when so many factors came into play in negative ways that even in a work that is so contemporary the author was able to wrestle some simulacrum of 'happily ever after.'  Reality and realism are all well and good, and certainly en vogue, but it's also nice from time-to-time to see an author indulge the idea that things can work out.  

Last year Kim told me to read Everyone Has Everything and I'm sad I waited so long to do so.  And while I certainly see myself putting this book in many peoples hands it will be the US edition set for release in June (in hopes of a better copy), as the Canadian edition I bought had enough typos to warrant mention.  (It's amazing how obvious, lack of punctuation can detract from a story.)  I don't come across works that discuss topics found in Everybody Has Everything very often and even if I did I doubt it would be done this well.  There's an abrupt lack of sentimentality yet keen observations that manage to endear the reader to the narrative without eye rolling or coming across as an essay.  

Save the date, June 23 2013, this is a book you want to read.   

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos

In this debut novel Carrie Arcos takes an interesting looking at addiction; how it affects those under it's spell, their friends, and family.  Micah has gone missing and his disappearance is solely due to his meth addiction.  Micah's sister, Rachel, and Tyler, and friend and band-mate of Micah's, undertake to find him with nothing more than the assistance of a week old anonymous email. 

Rachel is a year younger than her brother.  She has known about the extent and duration of his drug use more than anyone yet she choose to never speak up.  While never supporting or encouraging his addiction she lacked the courage to act out at what could have been key moments in Micah's decline.  Upon receiving an anonymous email stating Micah's condition and whereabouts she resolves to drive to the city and find her brother, thus ending her status as sideline bystander in the event of Micah's drug descent. 

While her heart is in the right place, from the very beginning I had problems taking Rachel's search seriously due to some of the decision she made.  Sure she wants to find Micah and she wants him to get help and she hopes for the best but it all felt like a joke; her search felt like nothing more than something to do on an otherwise slow weekend.  In the very beginning she recalls a story of Micah in a rehab facility and a meeting between those in the clinic and their families.  A young woman admits to sleeping with lots of men for heroin.  It's a big emotional breakthrough for her to admit the depth of her problem and to do so to herself and in front of her family.  Rachel makes jokes about the woman's front teeth and how big they are and how she can identify the woman's mother because she has similar large front teeth.  As a reader, I couldn't understand how addiction was being presented as something serious as it was taken anything but seriously by the book's main character.  Throughout the novel this point never changed.

Rachel's quest to find her brother was marred by similar immaturity from the outset.  Sibling, loved one, best friend, whoever; is away from home and you're scared because you don't know their location but you're certain as to the extent of their drug problem so when you get a tip saying, 'Hey, _______'s over here and in bad shape...'  you would either a) wait a week to take action, or b) essentially ignore the email and not even reply.  Well, if you're Rachel, why not maximize your incredulity and do both!

As Rachel and Tyler stumble around the town that was supposedly Micah's confirmed place of residence a week ago she continually puts them in increasingly precarious situations not so much out of concern or an impatient desire to help Micah, but an arrogance--I'll indulge her actions and say possibly ignorance--of 'Nothings gonna happen to me.  Why not just harass these people until I find out what I want?'  While I've never had to do anything that she is depicted as doing, common sense in her situation would demand that while you're shoving Micah's picture under the noses of homeless people, junkies, and drug dealers--all of whom have absolutely nothing to lose--you might wanna exercise a certain measure of decorum and caution.  She quite literally laughed in the face of a recovering sex addict as that person was trying to help her.  Tyler, who I felt was the best drawn character, maintains no hope in their rescue mission but is cheerfully optimistic for the sake of Rachel and the possible romantic interest that lies between them. 

Tyler has seen and dealt with addiction in a way Rachel hasn't.  His father has confronted his alcoholism and asked forgiveness whereas Micah's is still coming to terms with how meth is affecting him.  It's through Tyler that we see that Out of Reach isn't so much about finding Micah and keeping him safe rather it's about Rachel coming to terms with Micah's not being ready yet to ask for help.  This point felt really weak and there was a pervasive, 'He'll come back when he's ready, Micah doesn't want to be found' theme that made me roll my eyes.   While it was easy to see that Micah wasn't going to be found by the book's conclusion, it felt more like Rachel saying 'I'm okay with you not being ready to seek or accept help yet; keep using and explore how bad life with meth can get.'  They got in the car and set out to find him out of care and concern because of a serious drug problem, but by the end Rachel has decided that's its okay to be passive and wait for him to come to me.  I don't think she gave up on her brother, but she did either give in to the problem or the initial, naivety of her search for him.  I didn't feel that someone capable of such a large change of heart was a strong enough choice of narrator to tell a story.  

Rachel's acceptance of Micah was paralleled by a faux, never fully realized, spiritual awakening that either needed further development or to be removed altogether.  As Rachel and Tyler's day trip finished with them stealing her car back, breaking into a church, and antagonizing previously mentioned shadier denizens of life, we aren't offered anything by way of conclusion.  Not by way of finding Micah (oddly we're supposed to  embrace the fact that he's not ready to be found and therefore lets wait around while he uses more until he's ready), understanding Rachel's position, or even Rachel making steps towards being more open with other people--or parents--as to what she knows about Micah's problem.  There is symmetry in the email Rachel sends Micah at the end as it's much like the one she initially received that launches the books adventure: it goes unanswered, neglected, and surely not ever to resonate with it's intended reader for a very long time.

The book is cleanly written, with a comfortably moving pace, it's easy to read and things never got as gritty as I expected considering the subject matter.  (I'm always okay with diet-grit with topics like this.)  Out of Reach skirts some weighty issues, makes light of some very weighty issues and struggles to actually tell a well rounded story, but it's also the kind of book that if it gets people talking, good things will happen in society--I actually believe that--even if a good story never full materializes in it's covers.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

     "This version of our lives, her version, was important to her.  I knew that.  It was the story she always told her friends, the one she had probably told Alan when they were dating.  I'd heard and overheard it a million times myself: (...)
     And it was a true enough version in some ways.  Nothing about it was patently false.  It just wasn't the whole story.  I felt Alan watching me, "Jenna?" he prompted.  "You look like you want to say something." 
     I glanced at him, could hardly look at my mom.  "Something did happen.  To me.  And Cameron.  Something kind of horrible." 
    She looked stricken and said nothing, like she was afraid to ask what it was.  So I kept talking."  Page 169

I don't understand the anything about marketing and publishing.  The story descriptions on the back of a book and in the interior flaps are always to be ignored.  Book covers are perhaps even more difficult for me to understand.  I can only assume that the people in these positions are doing their jobs very well or else the trends that persist wouldn't still be around.  I'm all for 'Don't judge a book by it's cover' but if I hadn't previously read Sara Zarr and loved everyone word I would have avoided Sweethearts.  You have to ignore the cover.  (It's not that the cover is bad, only very misleading.)  Then ignore the title.  (The title and cover combo try to ensure that no one other than a very specific market will approach this book, and I should think that audience would feel misled.)  Finally, don't read anything on the back.  So what you want, is to read this book electronically--text only--or a corrected, unbound proof.  Just don't make the mistake of not reading it. 

Cameron Quick and Jennifer Harris went through elementary school hell together.  She was fat and told she was ugly, raised by her mother who made no time for her at all, and Cameron was raised by two people that never should have had kids for a host of awful reasons.  They were teased--badly--outcast, and became friends.  They were each others only friends, family and people who showed each other any kind of care or affection.  The previously mentioned "horrible" thing happens and binds them together at the age of nine in a very compelling way.  Soon after this traumatic event Cameron completely falls out of Jennifer's life. 

Fast forward from age nine to seventeen and Jennifer Harris has transformed herself into Jenna Vaughn: new school, new body, new self confidence, friends, boyfriend; a whole new identity.  All of these concepts would have been foreign to Jennifer Harris.  It is Cameron's reappearance, after Jenna's long standing belief that he was dead, that makes her struggle with her identity and question the validity of Jenna Vaughn. 

Contrary to popular belief, not all young adult fiction is about 'coming of age.'  That seems to be what Catcher in the Rye has predisposed the world to think but it's not always the case.  Jenna has come of age rather nicely (whatever that means) but when Cameron comes back she has an honest, full-blown, identity or midlife crisis at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Jennifer Harris was a kleptomaniac, a victim of neglect on so many levels, and forcibly made to be self sufficient at a very early age.  Jenna is having to reconcile her present with Jennifer's past; sift through the good and bad, find what works and what doesn't without falling prey to too many destructive habits.

Sweethearts deal with Jenna's problems interacting with other people and, of course, how she explains her life to herself.  Her mother, who was virtually never there in Jenna's younger life as she worked to put her self through nursing school and try for something better, doesn't know of this terrible thing that happened to Jenna and Cameron.  She was never around long enough for Jenna to tell her.  It's the kinda of thing that no parent would want to happen to their child, yet they'd absolutely want to know if it did.  Jenna's mother was not only not ever there for her growing up, but she also lied to Jenna about Cameron's disappearance at the time it happened.  She did so knowingly and in full understanding of what Cameron meant to Jenna as a child.  Cameron's appearance adds a heavy dose of stress to their relationship that was previously never present. 

Jenna's relationship with Ethan, her boyfriend, is stereotypical of a high school romance: aggressively shallow, vapid, and routine.  While Ethan is definitely in line with the behavior of his age and position and most of his interest in Jenna start with his genitals, I do wish Jenna kicked him to the curb way earlier than she did.  She knew her treatment of Ethan wasn't fair to either of them and it only led to further, damaging bad decisions on her part.   Her internal confusion, and Ethan's presence led to a somewhat disturbing birth of what felt like Jenna's sexual dependency and need to be with someone as a way of finding solace in all the conflict that suddenly came up.  Jenna and Ethan had some really blurry sex with some very weighty undertones that never developed.

With her friends, Ethan included, Jenna occupies a space between 'Yes-Man' and high school ideal.  She has everything she could want and slowly starts to acknowledge that her life is fake.  She has been giving into whatever will support her status; whatever will keep her far away from Jennifer Harris.  Cameron comes back and she starts stealing again, eating disturbing amounts of ice cream and candy, and questioning the relationships with the people she had previously called her friends. 

Not surprisingly, her relationship is most complex with Cameron.  Cameron is more of a figurehead that represents Jenna's past.  He's not a solid, tangible, developed or substantial character.  He isn't given much time in the book, and what little we get is infuriating and led me to believe that he was an asshat.  He is all the friction in Jenna's life within herself, her mother, and her past.  Cameron and Jennifer are the ultimate platonic relationship that isn't stable or meant to last.  Jenna's mother said Cameron represents 'unfinished business' and I liked that expression except I never felt she would move on or live a fulfilling life in any capacity.  She starts stealing again with no remorse and binge eating with only vain thoughts as to her looks; never once thinking why she's stealing or eating mountains of cake.  She certainly had sex with Ethan for all the wrong reasons, and never thought to ask herself why she was doing it.  We see Jenna explore many possible outlets to relieve her stress but she never actually dealt with the problem.  Simply getting over the psychological abuse she went through as a child isn't really an option, what she went through would undoubtedly stick and change a person, but she seemed really well adjusted--all things considered--before Cameron came back, and lying to one's self to be happy isn't exactly rare these days.  I'm really not sure what all I wanted from Cameron's character but he was a bit too abstract to really impact the story.    

You should know by now that I complain the most about the books I love best.  In having read Once was Lost, I've seen Zarr go further and develop topics more than was done in Sweethearts.   

Jenna seemed a bit too close to her stepfather, Alan, not in a way that felt creepy or false but he was easily her BFF and that was never developed and considering her past with older male figures it didn't exactly ring true.  Also the ending felt super rushed.  Not only because Cameron had to get out of Dodge, but Jenna's sexual experiences were glossed over and pushed aside as if they meant nothing to her even if she did it with a good guy, it was for bad reasons and at that age, and it being her first times I felt those encounters would have had a much stronger impact on her development as a person.  

I wanted a lot more resolution than the book even hinted at.  The identity crisis is not resolved.  Will Jenna keep stealing?  Doubt it, but we don't know.  Binge eating?  No.  She's not shallow but she likes how she looks and understand the work it took to get the body she has.  Will Jenna keep having comfort sex with guys as a physical escape from all that causes pain and confusion in her life with no regard for consequence, emotional attachment,  or underlying problems?  Probably.  None of these 'escapes' or regressions back to Jennifer (sans the sex of course) were ever addressed.  This is the main reason Cameron as a character felt false: he was a great vehicle to aid Zarr in telling a powerful story; he shows up, causing tons of tension, but then leaves, and not a lot has changed let alone been resolved. 

If you've read enough of my commentaries you can probably tell I loved this book.          

The title is not awful.  The cover would be great for a different book.  My 'best book of 2012' Once was Lost recently got a re-release with a new cover and title.  I think the same treatment would benefit Sweethearts.  That said, who cares?  It's got Zarr's name on it so go read it and enjoy both days it will take you to finish.  Zarr really has a firm grip on the 'strong young girl, all alone, with negligent parents, emotional and psychological suffering' thing down.  As in she's excellent at that, and proven it at least twice.  Here's to hoping that her May 2013 release shows that this wonderfully talented author can offer some diversity.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Permeable Borders by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

For two or three years now Nina Kiriki Hoffman has been a name that I've regularly come across in short story collections and 'year's best' anthologies.  I read her contribution, love it (usually) then move on; never giving further thought to the author.  It was a sort of New Year's Resolution for me to remedy this issue.  Part of my purpose in reading anthologies and various collections is to come across new writers that I like who work in genres I'm comfortable with.  To that end I found success with Hoffman so it only makes sense that eventually I'd want to look further into her works. 

Permeable Borders is a short story collection that contains 16 of the author's works from 1993
-2012.  There are many unifying elements both in a greater sense of the entire collection and on a smaller scale.  We see reoccurring characters and stories collected under sub-headings such as: 'Fairy Tales' and 'Finding Each Other' and the titular 'Permeable Borders.'  All the stories deal with acceptance either of a character or sometimes acceptance of those surrounding the main character who profess to care yet have great difficulty understanding a character's oddities.  While this theme becomes more transparent as the collection goes on there is enough variance in each story's scenario as to not only indulge interest, but also to make the reader anticipate the twist that might strongly differentiate one seemingly similar story from another. 

I'm not surprised that my favorites came from the 'Fairy Tale' section of the book.  Switched is an excellent re-telling of Cinderella in which the wicked step mother is as forth coming in her intentions as possible and the poor abused pushed-to-the-side, Cinderella finds power, prominence, and most surprisingly contentment in her 'frog kissing' station.  Strikes of the Heart deals with an aging all-powerful witch.  While she had previously never done anything that could be conceived as less than a 'good' act, she has difficulty controlling her power while battling some obvious signs of dementia or at least something that looks like Alzheimer's.  It is up to her granddaughter to assume her power and deal with her grandmother's health and the responsibility and roles she must assume.

'Finding Each Other' is a section of the book that held seven stories all of which were connected by more than themes but characters as well.  Matt is a not witch (as Matt is made to say repeatedly), nor the young adult vagrant he seems.  (I cracked up for a solid minute when Matt's biggest secret was revealed).  Matt can talk to inanimate objects and he persist he doesn't give them life only alerts them to the fact that they are alive.  Matt's occasional--and certainly accidental--friend Terry most certainly is a witch. 

Terry is thirty years old and lives at home with her mother.  While her mother is okay with Terry being a witch and unconditionally loves her as her daughter she, and everyone else who knows Terry, has problems with Terry's manipulative nature, the way she uses people so selfishly, and her complete lack of respect for others.  Terry's witch powers are considered dark and corrupt added to which she's very powerful, however she'd tell you she's not a bad person.  She's merely acting on her own inclination and interest; as most other people in the world do.  Her nature and personality make for some very stark contrast with Matt's tendencies to help and look for the good in people.

Edmund is a third reoccurring character in the 'Finding Each Other' stories who is even more of a wandering hippie that Matt.  Edmund has powers too but they are unlike Matt's or Terry's.  He seeks to make the environment he's in at peace with itself.  Sometimes it's a person that needs help, sometimes it's a wall that needs tending too.  Edmund's stories were easily the most subtle in terms of what was accomplished, also the most densely written and perhaps his stories resonated the strongest when collectively looking at the 'Finding Each Other' stories.  These stories work so well due to all that Hoffman doesn't share.  There is an immediate story she wants to tell and she never stops to tell us about Matt's powers, Terry's ultimate objectives, or how exactly Edmund does something so simple as exist in today's world.    

One could ask for more variety in the collection or considering the authors' total output being great than 250 short stories more of the occasional, startling originality such as How I came to Marry a Herpetologist, in which every time Fanchon talks she is greeted with a reptile equal to the number of words she speaks.  What's given is a touch repetitious and lacking in overt conflict that some readers may expect, but each story is consistent, excellently executed, and if not terribly different from each other these stories are certainly not what you'll come across from most other writers. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity was heavily thrown around many people's 'best of' at the end of 2012.  I read what the book was about and wrote it off: not my thing.  It would seem there came a point where I couldn't avoid it and eventually caved in.  Thank goodness I did.

Code Name Verity deals with the friendship of two British women near the end of German occupied France during WWII.  Both Maddie and Julie have very specific skills: Maddie, a desire and innate knack for flying and mechanics, Julie, nerves of steel and a super cunning intellect.  They both want to do more to support the war effort and they are both held to certain status due to their gender.  By the book's end they both gave far more than either ever intended to.

Julie writes to us from a German prison in Paris where she is being interrogated.  Her plane was shot down and in the wreckage many English wireless radio sets were found added to which it comes out that she is a spy.  The Nazis do a bit of everything to get her to tell all she knows.  Happily, we never have to witness the torture she endures directly but the evidence is relayed in not so subtle ways.  There is mention of ice water and electrocution, soldering irons and pins, forcible toe-nail removal and much worse.  She is being made to give up the code to the wireless sets, locations of secret airfields, and a host of other war-specific intelligence that her boss 'The Bloody Machiavellian Intelligence Officer' would rather she not speak of.  (And by-the-way, that's the best name for a character--spy or not--in a book ever.)

I never figured out why Julie's story needed be written down.  She was being tortured by Gestapo for a written confession.  Really?  That part never made sense to me and it was hard not to think about as the Nazis were always scrambling for precious paper of which was in short supply so Julie could continue her narrative.  You know, as opposed to doing awful things to her and making her tell them stuff.  

Through Julie's narrative we learn of how she, a wealthy Scot, with a University education and status, met a middle class 'everyday' type woman as Maddie and how they became friends.  She tells her story in first person while referring to herself in third.  (I figured it out a page or so before Wein tells us).  Until this point was made clear I found Julie's story infuriating.  Julie's written confession to her captors encompass two narratives, her induction into British intelligence and the beginning of her friendship with Maddie, and her current situation as a 'guest' at the Chateau de Bordeaux in the hands of the Nazis.  In the beginning, one of these story's was interesting and had conflict.  The other... not so much.

Following a bizarre host of circumstances Maddie very accidentally finds herself part of convert resistance rescue/seek and destroy team and it is her recollections of Julie that help her get through her present ordeals that she never envisioned undertaking. 

Both their narratives are unified by Maddie and Julie's accidental workings behind enemy lines; their solitude and isolation, and their determination to see their plans through to completion no matter of how messy the outcome may be.

I don't feel I'm doing a very good job telling what this book is about because it's so much more personal than anything what I've written thus far.  They didn't know each other very long, and they definitely came from different worlds but it's the backdrop of the war and their reality of what their doing that make Maddie and Julie's connection as friends seems so visceral. 
I always save the penultimate paragraph for what I thought didn't work particularly well when leaving comments on a book that I felt was very well done.  (Oh did I ever choose the words to that sentence with care...)  To be such drastically different people Maddie and Julie didn't come across as very different on paper.  Julie was always understandably super sensitive to her surrounding and as condescending as she felt she could get away knowing the Nazis would read and react to her confession but other than an occasional joke both sections of the book felt as if from the same 'voice.'  Code Name Verity is so well researched as to come across as educational at times.  I know--or feel that I know--more about planes, flying, mechanics, and principles of intrigue than I ever wanted to know and there were a few passing moments in the novel where I felt the details distracted from the story; especially in the beginning. 

This is easily one of the best books I've come across in a while.  The relationship feels real as do the characters trials and suffering; and once past the beginning when I kinda felt I was never given a starting point the tension is consistently at a ridiculously high level.  Here's the thing: as a reader; spies, double agents, hinted-at-torture, Nazis, and above all flying and air crafts don't interest me in the least.  For me, what many would deem the immediate appeal of this book was in a hole from the very beginning.  There were sections that I read at a frenetic pace and others where I read and thought about what I wanted for diner.  I could have put it down at anytime.  I was never once compelled or driven to sit down and read though I enjoyed it every time I did.  Code Name Verity is exceptional and while I wouldn't call it niche, neither do I think it has the broadest of appeal.  If the subject matter doesn't sound appealing to you then we may be of a kindred spirit so trust me: you'll read this book and say, 'Wow this is really well done and all kinds of exciting.'  If you've previously enjoyed WWII spy fiction and were excited before my last sentence, prepare to be blown away. 

For another look at the same book check out what Maria has to say

Friday, March 1, 2013

Month in Review

I had set a goal to read seven books this month.  I don't know why but I picked the shortest month of the year to attain what would probably have been my highest reading output for a single month.  I put forth a valiant effort but it was not to be.  Five books read doesn't make me feel bad though.  If Inkheart wasn't so huge I might have made six.  I had a shipping issue in getting Code Name: Verity but seven wasn't gonna happen.  I knocked out Clockwork Prince, 13 Reasons Why, The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket, The Best American Poetry 2012,  and Inkheart.  All-in-all a great reading month.  I think I'm most surprised at how much I liked Clockwork Prince though Inkheart was definitely the best single book I read this month.  

The poetry collection added a bunch of names and books to my TBR list, but I'm quickly learning modern poetry is hard to support.  Poetry collections don't circulate as much as other books so libraries don't get as much as they would for books in other genres.  That's okay and makes sense as a business design but I'm broke and only getting my feet wet so having to put out cash for something I may not really understand or even like is pretty rough.  That said, I've got a few in mind that I plan to look into.  

I'm setting high goals for March too; maybe not seven but I certainly think five is attainable.  So much so that I'll state what I plan to get to here and thus hopefully be able to hold myself to reading them.  Sweethearts, by Sarah Zarr, Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos, Permeable Borders, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket, and the previously mentioned Code Name: Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  I also plan to leave comments for four of these five so March could turn out to be a blogger heavy month.  OH!  And Clockwork Princess comes out mid March and I'm determined to be first in the library queue... So six books read just might happen!    

Finally, on a non book note, I've picked up on a really obnoxious new bar trend that I hope dies soon.  Now, would be the ideal time.  Went out to place with some friends last week that no one had previously had been to.  The bar brags about specialty drinks and an awesome beer menu.  We got there around ten and all the lights were off.  I don't mean 'It was Dark' rather all the damned lights were off.  There were candles in darkly tinted votives on the tables, and "so dim as to barely be on" lights in the sconces on the wall that were obviously there only to show off the sconces.  The menu arrived and I absolutely refused to read it and order by the light of my cell phone.  

Because that would be ridiculous and I'm too old for that.  

I asked if they could turn on the lights and our server laughed and rolled her eyes making nice comments on the dark setting.  It was out of her control to do such a thing and I understand that.  Then we left and went to a bar where we could indulge one of our primary senses.  

Sadly I've encountered this, 'lets turn off all the lights' thing before.  (I left that place too.)  I thought it was bad when places turned the music up to absurd volumes as the night worn on but this is even worse.  

Who comes up with all these stupid ideas?