Two DNFs

I suppose each  of these could have gotten their own post, but I didn’t want to work that hard.

hatersThe Haters
by Jesse Andrews
First sentence: “Jazz camp was mostly dudes.”
Review copy provided by publisher
Content: So many swear words, including a bucketful of f-bombs. Realistic, sure, but it lands it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Wes and Corey are at jazz camp. They’re not the world’s best musicians; mostly what they do is mess around on the bass and drums, respectively, and be super snobbish about the music they listen to. They figure it’s going to be a halfway decent camp, until they meet Ash, who is a lead guitarist. But not a jazz one. She’s also the only girl at the camp. And then, one night, she talks Wes and Corey into ditching camp and going on a “tour” as a band — just the three of them.

I wanted to like this one, and sometimes I did. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I thought that Andrews’ observations on music and hipsters and snobs and possibly even teenagers were spot-on. But, that just wasn’t enough to make me care. I made it nearly halfway before I realized that I had no desire to find out what happens on this “world tour of the south” or how Wes, Corey, and Ash deal with everything. It was funny at times. It just wasn’t interesting.

Which is too bad.

maestraMaestra
by L. S. Hilton
First sentence: “Heavy hems and vicious heels swooped and clacked over the parquet.”
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Um. Well. Let’s just say that it’s a smarter 50 Shades of Grey.  It’s in the Mystery section of all places.

I think there’s a plot to this one. By day, Judith works at an art house as a lackey — she’s super informed about art, smarter than everyone else at the art house, but she just doesn’t get respect. So, by night, she works at a house of pleasure (of sorts). I’m sure more stuff happens, but I bailed after she accidentally killed a guy in France (or was it Italy?) and went on the lamb.

I’ll admit I don’t mind sex in my books. I like sex when it’s smart, when I like the chemistry between the characters, when there’s a plot to attach itself to. I don’t go in for erotica, mostly because it’s sex and no plot. This one, I was assured, balanced the both: hot sex, interesting character, good plot.

Um. I never got past the hot sex part to see the other two. Sure, Judith was intriguing, but 100 pages in there really wasn’t much of a plot. And it’s rumored that this is a series? Seriously? I decided I was much too innocent for this one (the sex wasn’t so much hot as it was disturbing), and since the characters and plot weren’t enough to hold my interest, I bailed.

Lilliput

lilliputby Sam Gayton
First sentence: “All down the pebble path to the beach, Lily sulked about her iron shoes.”
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Content: There’s some abuse and danger, and there are some larger words, but for the most part, this one is suitable for grades 3 and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lily is a young child in the land of Lilliput when this big giant, Gulliver, comes and snatches her away. He takes her back to London to serve as “proof”. It seems, his stories of his travels have been dismissed as fake and so for the sake of his pride, he kidnapped Lily. He has her in a cage while he finishes his book. Lily, however, just wants to be free. Her life span is a lot shorter than Gulliver’s, and she’s spent half of her life in this cage. She needs to be free.

So, she keeps trying to escape. And eventually, she finds some humans who are willing to help her.

It’s an interesting take on Gulliver’s travels, and I enjoyed having it from the point of view of Lily. There’s some nice subtle commentary on the ethics of taking people from their homeland as well as the conditions which children often found themselves in, both in orphanages as well as in apprenticeships. It was a nice change to have the Spanish character be the “good” guy (in addition to him being the stay-home dad while his wife traveled the world).

But, while it all added up to something nice, it wasn’t overwhelmingly compelling, in my view. And that’s too bad.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Bitch in the House

26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
edited by Cathi Hanauer
First sentence: “This book was born out of anger – specifically, my own domestic anger, which stemmed from a combination of guilt, resentment, exhaustion, naivete, and the chaos of my life at the time.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: A lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. Talking about sex, but no actual sex. Probably not interesting to teens, since most of these women are in their mid- to late-20s and older. It’d be in the sociology section of the bookstore.

I got a text from M a while back, with a picture of this, saying (essentially) that she really needed to talk to someone about this. So, I picked it up, just to see what it was.

It is precisely what the cover said it was: 26 women, all employed, some with families, expressing anger at their life situation. I get some of that anger: a lot of the pressure on women is societal. We were told we could have it all, but no one bothered to tell the men that they needed to help out. (Which, truly, seemed the biggest complaint.)

I did find myself identifying with some of the essays: life is tough, and I can see how it not going the way you think it should would equal anger. But, I can’t just muster that; I’m much too tired. I bailed about 2/3 of the way through; I found that I just didn’t care about upper-middle class women’s whining that they can’t have a job and a family and a relationship and everything else. So what? There are people out there who are trying to make ends meet without the help of a nanny.

That’s a bit harsh.

It’s also 12 years out of date, and I felt that time lapse. Maybe things haven’t changed all that much. Maybe they have changed a bit, and maybe not always for the better. But, I’m tired of anger. (I know it’s useful. I’m just tired of it.)

In the end, it just wasn’t the book I wanted to be reading.

Dear Committee Members

by Julie Schumacher
First sentence: “Dear committee members, Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency — that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s very much an adult book in sensibility; not to mention about a half-dozen f-bombs dropped in frustration throughout the novel. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while; I even was given an ARC by the publishing rep when they came to talk about the lineup a long while back. I just didn’t get around to it until my book group foist it upon me, saying the same thing everyone else did: It’s hilarious. You’ll love it.

It’s the story of Jay Fitger, a tenured English professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, told entirely through his letters of recommendation (and other letters) for various people. At the outset, it’s a brilliant work of fiction: you get a thorough sense of Jay and the kind of professor (and person!) he is through the letters. Also, you get a sense of not just the passing of time, but also the kind of responses he’s getting, without seeing those. These are entirely one-sided letters, and yet I felt like I got a complete picture of everyone in Jay’s life, from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both on campus) to the woman he had an affair with and modeled a despicable character in one of his (bad) novels after. I knew these people (at least on the surface) from the way Jay wrote to them (and about them) in his letters.

But that wasn’t enough for me to love this one. No, I didn’t find it funny because it hit too close to home; my husband is a professor in a small department in a struggling liberal arts college in the Midwest, and the things Jay was dealing with were just too familiar to be funny. In fact, I think this book is funnier the further away from academia you are. (Or at least the English department; the person who chose the book is a biochemistry professor.) But for those of us in the humanities, or at struggling small colleges, it’s just not funny. It’s Truth. And, at least for me right now, Truth wasn’t what I wanted to read.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder
First sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
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Content: There’s really nothing, but because it’s a classic, it would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

For my in-person last month, we wanted to read a classic. We looked at this huge long list of modern-day American classics some guy put up (I can’t remember right now who it was or why), and chose this one (mostly because it was the shortest). I know very little about Thornton Wilder; I’ve seen Our Town a couple of times (and never really “got” it) but that was the extent of my knowledge.

This story is a short one, a series of short vignettes about five people who died in a (fictional) bridge collapse in Lima, Peru in 1714. They were loosely interconnected, and the framework is about this monk who spent time researching their stories. I think it was supposed to be about the randomness of life and death, that both good and people can die at any moment and how it really doesn’t matter how you live your life.

Whatever.

Seriously. That’s how I ended up feeling at the end. I read the words, but none of them registered in my brain. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, the plot was nonexistent. I do have to admit that it may have been me (why else would it be on all the “you must read” lists?), because this isn’t the first book lately that I’ve gone “huh?” when I’ve finished. Slumps will do that to you.

Or maybe it’s the book. Either way, I finished it, but that’s about all I can say.

The Riverman

by Aaron Starmer
First sentence: “Every town has a lost child.”
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Content: There’s some alcohol usage and talk of murdered children. Also, it feels really adult in its sensibilities. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’m not happy with that. On the other hand, it’ll languish in the YA (grades 6-8) section too, so I might just leave it where it is.

Alistair Cleary  is the kind of kid who blends in. He’s not popular at his middle school, but he’s not reviled, either. His best friend is a gamer — which is quite unusual, since it’s the fall of 1989 — but Alistair has managed to escape certain geek doom. He’s content to slide through life. Until Fiona decides that it’s Alistair who needs to write her sad tale down.

And what a tale: Fiona insists that she’s been going to this imaginary land, Aquavania, which is absolutely real. She’s added months to her life in her trips (which become years later in the book). And that her friends in Aquavania — who also happen to be real people in the Solid World — are disappearing because someone called the Riverman is sucking their souls away.

I had Issues with this book. It compelled me enough to finish it, sure, but it was one of those books that I threw across the room when I was done. I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write about my issues, and to boil my problems with the book down into a neat, concise package, but I don’t think I can. There will be spoilers.

My initial problems come from the incongruity between the cover and the book itself. The cover screams middle grade, but the content is very… adult. On some level, I feel like Starmer should have gone all the way, made this incredibly dark and sinister, used the metaphor that he was building — that Aquavania is a crutch for Fiona, who uses it to escape horrible things in her life — and made it an adult book.

But, even though that is the set up for most of the book, Starmer doesn’t follow through. He pulls what I have come to think of as a bait-and-switch, a “HA! It’s Really REAL” moment. For which he has given us no basis in the rest of the book. Our narrator, Alistair, believes Fiona is making it up. He believes in the dark understory, so I do too. And so it’s incredibly unsatisfying (for me as an adult; would an older kid?) to have the rug pulled out from underneath you.

I’m sure there I have other complaints (did it really need to be set in 1989? REALLY?), but that’s the main one. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, but by the end I hoped for a lot more than what I got.

Dorothy Must Die

by Danielle Page
First sentence: “I first discovered I was trash three days before my ninth birthday — one year after my father lost his job and moved to Secaucus to live with a woman named Crystal and four years before my mother had the car accident, started taking pills, and begin exclusively wearing bedroom slippers instead of normal shoes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy handed to me by my manager who said “Get on this.”
Content: A pregnant teenager, a moderate amount of swearing including a few f-bombs, and some violence. The book belongs in the store’s teen section (grades 9+).

At first glance, the idea of this book is awesome: Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, didn’t want to be in Kansas after she went home, and found a way back to Oz, where she has taken over and is not only a tyrant, but she’s a bully. And she’s draining Oz of its magic. It is going to take another girl from Kansas — Amy, of the trailer park — who finds her way to this new and drained Oz, to kill the tyrant and save Oz from certain ruin.

See? Sounds pretty cool, right?

Well, not so much.

It’s not that this one was Horrible, per se. There were a lot of things to like about it, starting from the cool idea. I liked the way that Page developed the magic in the world, and made the Wicked Witches if not the good guys, at least the better ones. I liked Amy, and her willingness to try even though the odds were against her.

But that was about it. I won’t delineate my entire complaints (which include having Amy say “I was used to cornfields back in Kansas..” UM, where??), but rather my main one, this: why is this book not a stand-alone? There really was nothing in this book that either 1) warranted that it be 460 pages or 2) meant for it to go longer than one book. I think with some better plotting and editing (and less of the pregnant bully in the beginning) this could have been a tight, fun, cool romp in a unique version of Oz.

I guess I’m a bit miffed that it’s not, and that’s effecting how I see the book. Others (who don’t mind the whole drawn-out-ed-ness of this one) may find it more enjoyable. Part of me hopes she finds success with this, because it’s a really cool idea.

I just wish the execution was better.