Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content alert: The story takes place on a college campus, so it shouldn't be surprising that there's plenty of drug and alcohol use/abuse, allusions to an orgy or two, and swearing. Murder figures strongly too.

I think I've said before that Donna Tartt's name led me to believe she wrote romance instead of literary fiction. Consequently, I never read any of her novels until I devoured The Goldfinch in January. When I posted my review, so many people commented that they loved The Secret History, so I made it one of the first books I read as soon as I finished reading the Whitney novels. And while I wasn't captivated by it the same way I was with The Goldfinch, it was definitely worth reading.

Richard is a scholarship kid from a working-class family in a forgettable town in California who arrives as a transfer student at Hampden College (based on Tartt's alma mater, Bennington?) with not much to recommend himself other than a pretty great handle on Greek. However, the Greek program at Hampden is tiny, and all of the students are hand-selected by Professor Julian Morrow. Within a few weeks, Richard manages to ingratiate himself with the five Greek students and finds access to the program, and over the course of the year, he discovers that the students are hiding a huge secret, and they need his help if they're not going to be discovered.

While The Secret History is sometimes described as a mystery, I think it's much more a bildungsroman, or a character exploration along the lines of Dead Poets' Society or The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's an entertaining, fascinating, and sad novel, and one I'm happy that I took the time to read.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Book Review: And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

Title: And the Dark Sacred Night
Author: Julia Glass
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: It's been a month or so since I read the book, and I can't remember anything objectionable. I'm sure there's some swearing, but no memorable sex and no violence.

Rosie, my three-year-old, is just starting to understand that she's adopted. We've told her that when she was a little baby we traveled to China to get her, and a few days ago she asked me if we traveled to China to get Maren (her older sister, who is my biological daughter) too. I told her that Maren grew in my tummy and was born when we lived in Texas, and she seemed satisfied and dropped it, but I know that this was just the first of many times when we'll talk about adoption and her parentage, about which we know exactly nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if there's resentment and searching and heartbreak down the road ahead of us.

Kit Noonan knows that his mother, Daphne, was a high school senior when he was born, but he knows nothing about his father. At forty, he's stuck in life. He's lost his job as an art history professor, his wife wants to throw him out, but instead suggests that he try to find his father. So Kit heads north to Vermont to see Jasper, the stepfather who helped raise him, and Jasper's digging eventually leads him to the Burns family, whose son Malachy, long dead of AIDS, was Daphne's summer boyfriend at music camp (Malachy also appeared in Glass's 2002 novel, The Three Junes).

In typical Glass fashion, the story shifts perspectives many times throughout the novel. We start with Kit's perspective, then move to Jasper's, then to Daphne's, then to Lucinda Burns's, then to Fenno McLeod's who was a much-loved character from The Three Junes. I loved delving into Jasper's story, but it was frustrating and disappointing that we didn't get resolution to any of the characters' stories except for Kit's. It felt like the characters became main characters for a while, then slipped back into barely supporting roles. But the story as a whole works, and I hope that the resolution to my kids' searching is as satisfying as Kit's worked out to be.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book Review: A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante

Title: A Circle of Wives
Author: Alice LaPlante
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content alert: Some talk about child sex abuse, but I don't remember anything else, not even a sex scene, which surprises me in a book about a guy with a whole bunch of wives.

Palo Alto doesn't see many murders. Detective Samantha Adams is far more accustomed to looking into bike theft than solving violent crimes. But there's the dead body of John Taylor, a renowned plastic surgeon, on the floor of his room at the Westin, and everyone's conception of the do-gooder surgeon, who takes on difficult cases with disfigured children, changes abruptly when it's revealed that his widow, Deborah, is really only one of three women who called John their husband (not to mention the one who called him her fiance). But which one killed him?

I loved Alice LaPlante's novel, Turn of Mind, when I read it a few years ago, so I was eager to get my hands on this story too. I think Circle of Wives works well as an exploration into the characters of Adams and the three wives, but as a murder mystery it fell a little flat. I read the story on my kindle and couldn't believe that the end was actually the end of the story-- it felt like there were lots of loose ends that weren't tied up, and there wasn't much resolution with Adams, the PoV character for much of the novel.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Title: Frog Music
Author: Emma Donoghue
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Graphic and highly creative sex scenes, language, violence

It's the unseasonably hot summer of 1876 in San Francisco, where Blanche Beunon is a former circus performer, a burlesque dancer and sometimes whore, has just made her first girl friend, Jenny Bonnet, a fellow French immigrant who wears pants and catches frogs for a living. Meeting Jenny is a turning point in Blanche's life-- she's no longer complacent about the "farm" her lover sent their one-year-old son to live on when she was so sick after his birth. In fact, she's no longer so sure that she event wants to be with her mooching lover or his best friend (they're kind of a package deal). In the course of a few weeks, she regains her son, then loses her lover, then loses her son (literally, not through death), and loses the building she has bought, and then, hiding out on the outskirts of town, Jenny dies from a bullet she's pretty sure was intended for her.

The narrative structure of the book is a bit frenetic, with lots of jumping back and forth in time, and the afterword to the story is heartbreaking (the story is, if you can believe it, based in fact-- both Jenny and Blanche were real people). And there is lots, and lots, and lots of sex of every imaginable variety of pairings. For me, the most unbelievable part of the story was Blanche's command of English-- for someone who didn't speak the language at all a year earlier when she arrived in America, she had mastered the language well. Maybe all of that pillow talk was a great way to learn. This is only the second novel I've read by Donoghue (whose novel, Room, was a fascinating, shocking read a few years ago). I read somewhere that she has a PhD in gender studies (or maybe it's women's studies), and it feels a bit like she tries to tackle a different women's issue in each of her novels. As an exploration of female sexuality and friendship, this one works, but I'm not so sure about how some of the smaller details come together.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Title: Doctor Sleep
Author: Stephen King
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content alert: It's scary enough to keep readers up turning pages because they're too scared to sleep. Rough language, violence, drug use, a sex scene ir two, descriptions of child sex abuse

A couple of years ago, I read my first Stephen King novel, 11/22/63. It had been heavily hyped, and despite my reservations (I always thought that Stephen King novels were mostly read by nerdy boys with heavy metal t-shirts and greasy hair), I loved it. But it wasn't a horror novel, and so I thought it was an anomaly-- a step outside of King's regular genre to appeal to readers like me. But a few months ago, I kept seeing Doctor Sleep show up in my "Recommended for You" feeds. I knew that it was a sequel to The Shining (which I had neither read nor seen as a film), and you all know how I feel about reading the second book in a series before I've read the first book in a series. But finally, in a moment of weakness, when I had plenty of Audible credits and wanted to get something long to maximize the bang for the buck factor, I bought this one.

It was a few more weeks before I delved into the story of Dan Torrance, who King's fans probably recognize as the five-year-old protagonist of The Shining. In Doctor Sleep, Danny is all grown up, and sort of washed up. He's bounced around from city to city in an alcoholic haze, and done some things he's not proud of. But eventually, he ends up in a small town in New Hampshire, where he gets his act together and works in a CNA-type job at a hospice. He's known around the place as "Doctor Sleep," because he has an uncanny ability to help dying patients make their final journey in peace. The power of second sight, "the shining" which was so potent within him when he was a child, has dulled a bit, but it still has its uses.

And then Dan meets Abra Stone, a young girl who also has the shining, although hers is so strong that it has attracted the attention of the True Knot, a group of vampire-like creatures who have managed to extend their lives by capturing children with the shining and feeding off their essences (think Mother Gothel in Tangled). Dan and Abra join forces to outsmart the True Knot, which allows Dan to confront some of the demons of his past, as well.

Once again, I was totally wowed by Stephen King. This book lies solidly within his genre, and now I'm forced to recant my former snobbery and say that he tells a darn good story and he is a darn fine writer. The audiobook is fantastic, and even though the story is about a million hours long (20 or so, in actuality), I finished it in less than a week, because I was so eager to find a resolution to the story. And I'm reading The Shining now, so I guess that makes me a true Stephen King fan. I guess I should go to Hot Topic and find myself a Metallica t-shirt so I fit in.