Thursday, December 18, 2014

CBR VI Review #2: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

“This was truly advanced WASP: how to comfort a wronged wife and mother without acknowledging any misdeeds done or embarrassment caused by loved ones.” 


Man alive did I dislike this book. Sometimes some distance from reading a piece will dull my initial impressions, good or ill, but I still stand by exactly how much I disliked this one.

Seating Arrangements tells the story of some truly terrible people over three days at a New England island estate, preparing for a wedding.  Our principle protagonist is Winn Van Meter, one of the least sympathetic characters I've come across in recent years.  His eldest daughter, Daphne, is getting married to another well to do socialite, named Greyson (really? Greyson?).  While everything has been well planned by the bride's mother, Biddy, things still go awry, as wedding plans often do, even when the people involved aren't terrible.  

Among the sad plots going on in this, Daphne's sister, Livia, is mourning a breakup from the son of her father's greatest (and least deserving) rival; a ridiculous crush that Winn has on one of his daughter's bridesmaids; and God I don't even care enough to say more about these things in summary without ranting about them.

Some spoilers ahead, but if you actually find them shocking, or find that the book is good enough to warrant you caring about knowing what will happen, then maybe just stop here - this review is not for you.

Winn is terrible.  His feud with Mr Fenn (who's first name I cannot be bothered to look up) never actually turns into anything of substance.  The jumps into his past that I suspect were put there to make us care about him only made me hate him more.  He's disrespectful to his entire family.  And God, the sort of tryst with HIS DAUGHTER'S BRIDESMAID.  I cannot get over that, on either side of the relationship.  Agatha is a whore, start to finish, with nothing else going on, and it grosses me out so much to have them be a thing.  It never feels justified, not even enough for me to go "How can you do that to your wife.  I didn't want Biddy to get angry and throw things - I just wanted her to walk out for literally anything else in her life.  Winn is terrifically self involved, a first class narcissist with the self assurance of the nerdy looking but incredibly dumb kid who gets beat up at school every day.  He has everything and values nothing and I just wanted him to die when he fell of that damned roof.  He faces practically no consequences for his consistently bad behavior.

Livia, the other character we're supposed to give a damn about, isn't a great improvement.  She's fairly insufferable about her ideals, completely whiny and unaccepting of her breakup, and naive to a degree that I didn't think was possible.  She grows a bit by the end, which is why she does stand as an improvement, but I didn't really care more for her - just didn't actively hate her.

The only character with POV that I actually cared about was not part of the Van Meter family.  Dominique I found rounded, interesting, compassionate, and realistic.  Whenever we shifted to her I was pleased.  I would have happily boarded a plane with her back to Belgium and followed her story instead of this one.

I don't remember how this book ended up on my To Read list, probably Entertainment Weekly.  It's definitely worth skipping.  The prose is good - this is a writer who understands how to write well.  She just didn't have a story to tell that I cared about, nor characters to hold my interest.

CBR VI Review #1: The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

“Facing up to the nightmare of the past is what gives you the power to build your future.” 



This is the most recent thing I've read, but I figured if I'm getting any of these reviews done, I should pick the pieces I felt the most passionate about.  And since this completes a trilogy I've reviewed previously in this blog, this seemed a decent place to start. NOTE: SPOILERS ABOUND FOR BOOKS 1 and 2.  I'll try to avoid them for this specific story. :-)

The Magician's Land picks up essentially where The Magician King left off.  Quentin is kicked out of Fillory, no longer a king and feeling very lonely and heartbroken.  Elliot and Janet are left running things, with Josh and Poppy by their sides.  Julia is MIA, somewhere on the Far Side of the World. Elliot and Janet's story in Fillory is entirely linear; they have issues to combat and journeys to take and they are all along a straight path to the end.  Quentin, however, employs Lev's favorite technique of bouncing around a bit until the latter half of the novel, letting us know how Quentin got along in a post-Fillory existence.  Essentially, the two tales boil down as follows (again, no spoilers) :

Filllory is suffering, and Janet and Elliot journey to discover not only how bad things are, but what they can do to combat what is happening.  That's about as much as I can say of their story without ruining it.

Quentin goes back to the begin and returns to Brakebills, the magic academy that introduced him to his future back in The Magicians. He is taken in as a professor, finally learning what his specialty is and meeting a very important new friend in Plum, a young female magician in her final year at the magical school.  His other story involves a heist that he and Plum are hired to take part in, and how the discoveries that arise from that heist set to change things.

I really enjoyed this book. It brought back a number of fantastic characters from the series, letting us see them all again before the close.  Quentin finally grew into the character I wanted all along.  If you read my previous reviews, a lot of my anger and disappointment at the second book sprung from my hatred of Quentin's inability to grow the fuck up.  His ejection from Fillory finally does the trick, and he matures into the man I wanted to see more of from the start.  If you want me to care about a character over multiple books, that person needs to grow and change in ways that continue to make them compelling.  Book 2 Quentin was still so very much Book 1 Quentin that it drove me crazy.  It was incredibly satisfying to finally see him grow up and become what I dreamed of for him.

We also replaced our Female Lead Role, previously occupied by Alice in Book 1 (LOVE) and Julia in Book 2 (HATE) with Plum, who I enjoyed.  She had her own drama without being made purely of drama, ala Julia, but also managed to never become a love interest for Quentin, ala Alice.  And her ties to the rest of the universe set up by the first two books are believable and interesting.

I also think Lev better employs his timeline jumps in this one.  When we had the jumping around to give all of Julia's backstory in 2, I got bored.  It didn't help that I hated Julia.  But in this, it fills in some story as we go in a way that felt much more natural, and not so much like alternating pages with an entirely different story.  Sometimes it takes some trial and error to make techniques work for you, and Grossman seems to have nailed it down better in this one.

In the end, this is an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.  Technically there's open air left at the close that would allow for more, but it also wraps in a way where you don't need anything else.  In the past few years, I've read a lot of series that concluded in maddening ways.  I was justifiably nervous about the wrap up on this one, especially with how disappointed I was in the middle volume.  I shouldn't have doubted - it all came out well in the end.  


A short bonus post update

So, you may have noticed a complete lack of reviews in the past year.  I've read 32 books as part of my half cannon commitment to CBR VI, but then failed to review a single one of them.  This makes me sad.

As such, I'm going to attempt to review at least a handful of them here before the year ends, and with it, my chance to contribute to CBR VI.  Then, starting the first of the year, we'll see if I can't do better with CBR VII.

For any random people who actually read this blog, which I imagine is only other Cannonballers, but whatever - please go visit Cannonball Read and see all the magnificent reviews posted by people who were much better at this whole thing this year than I was.  And buy books through the links included on the reviews if you are interested in buying those books - they donate a portion of the sale to our charity when you do!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CBR V Review #53: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

“It's a sad reflection on society how many people are shocked by honesty... and how few by dishonesty.” 



I'm on a play reading kick lately, I think because my SPTs reminded me how very few things I've actually read/seen, especially of late.  This was not a first read for me - I've read plenty of Noel Coward, and this was one of them I had read in the past.  However, it's been a lot of years, and I remembered next to none of it.

Coward has a brilliant way with witty dialogue.  It never feels like he's trying too hard to be clever, but the repartee is always sharp.  This play is the story of an unfortunate, though comedic, series of events set off by a seance in the house of the Condomines.  Charles Condomine wants to research a character for a book, and hopes that watching Madame Arcati perform a seance will give him the right vocabulary for his protagonist.  What he doesn't account for, however, is that the seance not only succeeds in connecting him, his wife, and his guests with the spirit world, but manages to bring his first wife over to the side of the living - with Charles the only one who can see or hear her.  Events unfold amusingly from then on.

I'm not a huge fan of reading plays, actually, because they are almost never as good on paper as they are in action.  That's by design - plays are written to be staged, the words given life by performers.  Reading them is a colder experience, even for an actor.  However, I simply don't have the time and funds to see quality productions of everything, so reading them tends to be a lot more accessible.  This is a fun read, especially because Coward's wordplay is always so enjoyable.

CBR V Review #52: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? by Edward Albee



I'm going to put this out there to start with - this play is most decidedly not for everyone.  The central issue at hand is the protagonists affair with a goat.  If that's a problem for you, just stop now.  If not, then enjoy the incredibly written play in all its complex awfulness.

Martin and Stevie have an incredibly happy marriage.  Neither has ever been tempted to cheat, something uncommon in their social circle.  They have a son, Billy, whose sexuality is an adjustment for the couple, but not something terrible.  Martin is at the top of his game as an architect.  But something is set to ruin everything.  After distractedly ruining and interview with his best friend, Ross, Martin confesses he's having an affair with a certain Sylvia, who, it turns out, is a goat.  He's in love with his wife, but he's also in love with Sylvia.  Ross writes to Stevie to tell her of Martin's infidelity, and the play is, in the main, a reaction to this news.

This play is so sharply written.  In such a short span, the relationship between Martin and Stevie is established as interesting, dynamic, and real, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see them fall apart in the aftermath.  I appreciate that Albee paints Martin in a sympathetic light.  Bestiality is not something we, as a culture, have any sort of sympathy or understanding for as a sexual choice (and I'm down with that, don't get me wrong).  But Martin isn't some degenerate pervert in this.  He's a man, in love, and confused by how and why that is.  Making Martin not a monster makes it an interesting story.  Albee makes him hard to hate the way you would expect to, and that's to his credit.

Stevie...Stevie is magnificent, and a character I am dying to play someday (I'm too young to have a 17 year old son, thank you very much).  The way she casually breaks objects while more pieces of the story come out is genius.  She has such fabulous snark about the way she handles her pain and her rage.  And she makes the point you have to wonder at as an audience - how can you possible prepare for something like this?  In the long list of things you can possibly imagine going wrong in a relationship - cheating, sexual identity issues, lying, alcoholism, screwing the babysitter, etc - who includes fucking a goat on that list?  I'm going to hazard a guess of very few people.

This play is brilliant and dark, like much of Albee's work.  I highly recommend it, if you can handle the subject matter.

CBR V Review #51: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

“How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.” 


I picked this one up because I thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, another of Ms. Brooks books.  This seemed a good subject matter for her - historical fiction, localized to one little English town.

Year of Wonders is about the plague, and the havoc it wreaked on one little village.  Based on true events in the village of Eyam, we follow Anna Frith through the death and decay of 1666.  An infected bolt of cloth brings the disease to the town, leaving all kinds of destruction in its wake.  It's a tale of survival, despair, catastrophe, and above all, hope.  

Anna is a wonderful character, trying to continue to cope and be useful as the world crumbles around her.  Helped by the assistance of the local reverend and his delightful wife, Anna tries to help the community survive the crisis.  It shows how low some people were brought, capitalizing off the misery of others, panicking in grief and laying blame at the wrong feet.  But it also shows how good can still shine through the darkness.

I feel like I should have more to say about this, but I really don't.  It's a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, sometimes incredibly hard to read, but always worth it.

CBR V Review #50: Just My Luck by Rosalind James



Yes, yes, *another* volume in the Escape to New Zealand series.  And the last, it would appear, as Ms. James has started publishing another series that I have no interest in.  Regardless, this is very much like its predecessors - All Black rugby player falls in love with ex pat.

In this case, the story is about Nate, new skipper for the ABs (you'll remember Drew from the first book was the previous skipper, and he retires in this volume).  His serious focus is tested by the beautiful and interesting Canadian, Allison.  Her interest in extreme sports, and Nate, keeps his mind occupied on something other than the game at hand.  They aren't the only romance in this one, though.  Ally's roommate (and Kate from the first book's sister) Kristen and another AB teammate, Liam, also have a blooming romance in this one.  Honestly, they have a relationship I liked more and I wish these were two separate books instead of meshed into one.

Ally and Nate's primary issue is his lack of ability to commit.  His focus on his career takes precedence over his feelings for her, and I'm glad when she gets sick of it and moves on (though of course he learns his lesson and makes it up to her, etc).  Liam and Kristen are more interesting.  She's a model gorgeous woman with a recent divorce who is incredibly gunshy about men.  This makes sense, since she's used to only being wanted for her looks.  Liam is a recovering alcoholic who has gone down a long, hard road to become the man he is now.  The way he warms her to him, and that they grow to love one another is lovely.  I wish I could have spent more time watching that unfold instead of Ally and Nate.  And Liam's proposal, and general courtship, is so beautiful.

Another great addition to a series I'm sorry to see the end of.  Hopefully she'll write more of them someday.  I love being transported to New Zealand and living with these characters.