Monday, January 31, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Debut Novels

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the brilliant bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is "Best Debut Novels".  Having a good debut is a tricky thing.  It can be sort of like a one-hit-wonder phenomenon, or getting the "Best New Artist" award at the Grammy Awards*.  Sometimes the person goes on to have a long, illustrious career (Alicia Keys), and sometimes they don't (anyone else remember Arrested Development?).  I decided for the sake of my list that even if it was the only book that the author wrote, it counted as a debut novel.

*On an unrelated note, while researching the metaphor abovc, I discovered that Bob Newhart won the Best-New-Artist Grammy at the 1961 Grammys.  I'd love to know how that happened!

1.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee-I don't really need to explain this one, do I?


2.  Carrie, by Stephen King-OK, so I sometimes get confused with the timeline for the books written as him and the books written as Richard Bachman, but this is the first novel that was published as him, so I'm going with it.  Carrie was such a sympathetic character that you actually found yourself rooting for her to use her powers and destroy all of those horrible people.  Kind of set me up to be a Dexter fan, I guess...


3.  A Time to Kill, John Grisham-I've read many Grisham books, but none that had the impact (or originality) of A Time to Kill.  Apparently he should have just stopped while he was ahead.  While I enjoyed most of his books, he fell into the "Steele" trap-named after Danielle Steele, mistress of using one plot over and over again by changing the names and settings.


4.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling-Again, I think this is fairly self-explanatory, but This novel was so charming and engaging that for a while I knew way more adults who had read it than children.


5.  The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger-I loved this book so much that I was actually afraid to read her next book for fear that it wouldn't live up to the awesomeness that is TTW.  I'm reading Her Fearful Symmetry right now, and I while I am not quite as caught up in it as I was the love story between Claire and Henry, it is not disappointing me so far.


6.  The Kite Runner, Khaled Hoseini-I think that this, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, are two of the absolute best books of the new century.  Hoseini's writing is a revelation, and the stories are so compelling I don't know how anyone could fail to be engaged and moved.


7.  The Help, Katherine Stockett-Stockett couldn't have asked for a better reception to her first novel.  It's been on several "best books for book clubs" lists, not to mention about every blog I've ever read.  It deserves all of that attention.  I don't remember a book, other than maybe The Secret Life of Bees, that does such a good job spotlighting the effects of racism and oppression on women in the south.


8.  Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger-I heard an interview on NPR this weekend with Pat Conroy talking about an English teacher he had in high school in 1961 who had to fight the school board to get permission to teach this book, and it reminded me all over again how powerful it really is.


9.  The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien-While the Lord of the Rings trilogy might be considered his masterwork, this first novel is so much more accessible, and really helped my fantasy loving teen-age self committed to getting through the other books, despite how dense they sometimes were.



10. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison-While not my favorite of her books, or her best, as a first book this title is pretty remarkable.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Caught, by Harlan Coben

For a while in my 30s, I pretty much read nothing but mysteries and thrillers.  This was in no small part due to the fact that that's wheat my mother was reading, and if you've ever read my blog you know that she was the supplier for my reading addiction when I was too poor to supply myself.  As a result of this rather narrow range of reading options, I have a mystery/thriller formula pretty much sewn up in all its various permutations.  Private detective stories, average guy stumbles onto a mystery stories, forensic anthroplogist/forensic scientist stories, psychiatrist-as-detective stories-chances are that if there is a kind of mystery out there I have read it. While I still enjoy reading them, they rarely surprise me too much.  Usually I've figured out what's happening long before the characters, so it's a treat to find a story where I am truly surprised.  Lucky for me, I read Caught, by Harlan Coben.

Caught follows several characters, but the protagonist is Wendy Tynes, a tabloid TV reporter who works for a "To Catch a Predator" kind of show.  After airing an episode that destroys a local do-gooder, Wendy starts to question whether she was used to set him up.  She starts investigating, and finds out that nothing is really as it seems. (of course, when is it ever in a mystery?)

My favorites of Coben's books are his Myron Bolitar books, and this one makes a passing reference to some of the characters from that series.  Win, Bolitar's amoral best friend, plays a minor role in the resolution of the story.  It was kind of fun having them there, though it did make me wish for a new book in that series.  It felt a little bit like teasing a little kid with a candy bar and then only giving them one little square.  But I thought that the story was well-paced, and I couldn't put it down.  I was also interested in the way that Coben portrayed the show about sexual predators.  I've always had a problem with that kind of "gotcha", and this situation gave me some interesting insight.  Overall I recommend this book for the mystery lovers out there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Children's Books I DID Read

Thanks to the women at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting Top Ten Tuesdays.  Being a list-lover as I am, I am always excited for a new topic.

Excited, that is, until this week.  This week's topic is "books I wish I had read as a child", and the happy fact is that I can't think of one.  I've read most of the children's classics, and plenty more besides.  I even tried looking at other people's list to see if maybe I was just blocking out titles that I felt ashamed to say I'd never read, but nope...I'm actually thrilled as can be with my childhood reading selections.


But I love lists!  What's a list-loving book blogger to do? Why, chan...er....modify the topic slightly, of course.  So here, rather than book I wish I had read as a kid, I will revisit a past topic I did not get to participate in-my favorite childhood books.  There were so many I'm going to have a hard time narrowing it down to just ten. 

Bridge to Terebithia, Katherine Paterson-I love this story of Jess and Leslie and their unlikely friendship.  This is also the first time I understood that children can die.  I can't read this aloud to my classes today because I sill cry every time.



Are You There, God?  It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume-I'm pretty sure that there are women about my age all over the country who would choose this coming of age story as one of their favorites.  I was so disappointed to read Blume's adult works later in life.  They just didn't hold a candle to her young adult books.



Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell-This was my introduction to strong female characters.  I so admires Karana and her ability to keep herself alive, and never to lose hope.  Plus, I've sort of always wanted to live on an island, though preferably not alone in a hut.




When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr-This may have been the first book I read about the Holocaust, and it started a life-long interest in the subject.  The thought that your whole life could be stolen away from you in the blink of an eye was frightening, and as I got older I appreciated how Kerr used Anna's story to introduce young readers to the idea of oppression.



Jacob, Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson-I so identified with Louise in this book.  As a quiet kid who was pretty shy, I often felt misunderstood by my peers and I understood her jealousy of the ease with which her sister lived in the world.. Louise was another strong female character that I adored.



The Narnia series, C.S. Lewis-My first fantasy series, but certainly not my last.  I had the rare and intense pleasure of watching the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe turned into the story into a movie that was EXACTLY like I had imagined reading it all those years ago.



Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt-I've always been a fan of historical fiction, and this is probably one of the first ones I read.  It was unusual for me to find strong connections with male characters when I was a girl, but I did with this one.


The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett-Oh, how I cried when Colin stood up and walked to his father for the first time.  And as hateful as Mary can be, you can't help but feel sorry for the poor orphan living in that cold, looming house.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betsy Smith-Francie was one of my favorite characters growing up, and I still reread this one every few years.  Historical fiction meets coming of age story-two of my favorite things all rolled into one.



Rutabaga Stories, Carl Sandburg-I checked this book out of the school library so many times the librarian offered to get me my own copy.  A collection of humorous short stories, Sandberg's gift for language and down-home sort of humor was a hit with me.

 

The Cay, Theodore Taylor-When my teacher read this aloud to us in fifth grade, I was captivated.  Living in an all white suburb of Chicago in the 70s, I had never really had any exposure to issues of race or racism.  This book opened my eyes to the absurdity of separating ourselves from each other on the basis of the melanin content of our skin.


A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry-Like many a pre-teen, I was a bit of a tragedy junkie.  This book by Lois Lowry fit the bill.  The story of a young girl whose sister gets cancer and dies is still a tearjerker.




Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,  Mildred Taylor-Taylor's writing is a masterpiece of historical fiction and character development.  While The Cay may have been my first exposure to racism, Taylor's works certainly helped me put what I learned into a historical perspective.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Is It About the Amish?

Seems like pop culture has some sort of strange fascination with the Amish.  Which is kind of funny when you think about it, since the Amish have absolutely no interest in pop culture.  From the movie Witness to that show about teenagers in rumspringa, modern Americans seem keen to understand what makes a group of people cut themselves off from so many of the conveniences that we take for granted.

Well, we can add Linda Castillo to the list of Amish-ophiles.  In her novel, Sworn to Silence, we meet Chief of Police Kate Burkholder, who runs the police department of the small town of Painters Mill in Ohio's Amish country.  Formerly Amish herself, Kate seems like the perfect person to navigate the sometimes difficult path between the Amish and the "English" neighbors.  One night, after a call about cows in the road, the body of a young girl is discovered, naked and mutilated, in a field.  Soon the whole town believes that the "Slaughterhouse Killer", who terrorized the town 16 years before has returned.  Everyone but Kate, that is-because 16 years ago, she killed him.

As mysteries go this one was a pretty good debut.  There are the usual plot points for this kind of novel-strong but flawed woman with a past, the cop on the edge that she finds herself attracted to, the ritualistic nature of serial murder.  But, the Amish connection was pretty well done, and was enough to keep my interest during some of the more predictable parts of the story.  This is the first book in the series, and I plan to read the next one to see if Castillo can keep the momentum going, or if the small-town, Amish/English dynamic proves to be self-limiting.  I mean, really, how much mayhem can the Amish get into, what with their no violence, no hatred, so weapons policy?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Seriously?





 Classic?!?








Just found Michel Crichton in the "classics" section on Goodreads.  Really, Goodreads?  Even if I were guessing which authors from the late 20th century would eventually be classics, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have chosen Michael Crichton.  Don't get me wrong, I love his books, and the hot docs on ER got me through many a lonely night, but in the classics section?  Next to Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness, and To Kill a Mockingbird?  I don't think so!  Forgive my bluntness, but it takes more than for the author to be deceased to make their works classic.  If I wasn't addicted to your bookswap, we'd be on a break!  Damn you, almost-free books!

Literary Blog Hop-Required Reading

Literary Blog Hop This week's topic for the Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, is one that is near and dear to the hearts of every person ever to take a literature class.  Near and dear, that is, if you like to talk about books that you hated.  Here's the question:

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?

Anyone who reads this blog even semi-regularly already knows of my hatred of all things Joyce (I'm looking at you, Portrait of the Artist!), so I will skip my usual diatribe against narcissistic stream-of-consciousness.  However, that means I can't really think of a book I had to read for one of my classes that I disliked enough to qualify for this question.  So, let's discuss a different but related question near and dear to my heart-why are certain works chosen over others to teach in high school and basic college classes?

This question occurred to me while thinking about books that I could write about for this post because in going through the ones I remember in my head, I realized that almost all of them have male protagonists or were written by men or both.  Now, granted, I was in high school and college in the 80s, but you'd think somewhere along the line I would have read a few women.  Let's examine the list of titles I can remember:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • A Separate Peace
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Julius Caeser, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Iliad
  • 1984
  • Jane Eyre
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Death of a Salesman
  • J.B. (Archibald MacLeish)
  • L'Etranger (The Stranger)
  • La Peste (The Plague)
From that list, which spans mostly high school, there are only two female authors, and two female protagonsists-Jane Eyre and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird-though Lee certainly goes out of her way to make sure we know that Scout is a tomboy, not one of those prissy girls.  Even the books I read in my French classes were male-centered.  While I enjoyed and appreciated most of these books well-enough, some diversity would have been nice.  After all, I enjoy vanilla ice cream too, but if all I ever ate was vanilla ice cream I'd never get to know flavors like rocky road or triple chocolate fudge ripple.

I thought that maybe this lack of female voices in my high school English classes was just a function of my age, so I decided to check out the books being taught the most today.  While my research is in no way scientific or exhaustive, by looking at the most popular SparkNotes I can say that students are looking for information on the following books more often than others.  And they are:


  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Adventures of Huck Finn
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Crucible
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Frankenstein
  • The Odyssey
Seems like American high school students are still be treated to vanilla ice cream an awful lot of the time.

Now I can hear some of you saying, "Those are just the high school books.  You can read so many more diverse books in college."  Which is true-if you go to college.  And if you are in a major that requires more than basic English classes, where some of the above titles are actually repeated in more depth. So, why has so little changed in the 22 years since I graduated from college?  With the wide range of excellent literature out there, why are American high schools still stuck in a dead-white-guy rut?  Anyone have suggestions for title we could add to these old standbys? 
 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

There are some authors whose books I will read regardless of what they are about.  Often, I don't even know what they are about, because if I see the author's name on the cover I don't even bother to read the synopsis.  There aren't many of them, but one of my must-read authors is Margaret Atwood.  Ever since reading The Handmaid's Tale in college I have been a huge fan of her work.  The Handmaid's Tale literally changed my life.  Before then, I called myself a feminist because I was raised to believe that men and women are equal, but I had never really thought deeply about the issues that kept women from being full participants in the world's political and social realms.  Reading The Handmaid's Tale was an "ah ha" moment for me, when I began to truly understand the moral and ethical questions behind feminism specifically, and social justice movements in general. While none of her other books has had quite the same effect on me, I have read all of them with a sense of wonder and admiration at Atwood's ability to create characters and stories that examine some of our most complex social dilemmas, not to mention her ability to use language in a way that is sometimes raw and powerful, and other times transcendentally beautiful.


The Year of the Flood is her latest novel, and it is a "sequel" to her novel Oryx and Crake, though much of it takes place during the same time period as the first, focusing on different characters.  The novel is set in the not-so-distant future, when corporations have attained global dominance, and the planet is quickly apporaching ecological disaster.  It is centered around two female protagonists, Ren and Toby.  Both become a part of an eco-cult called God's Gardeners, a group who eschews the technological advances of modern society and preaches a return to the days when food actually came from nature and people were not treated as fodder-either labor or consumer- for the large corporations.  They believe that a "waterless flood" is coming, one that will sweep away all of mankind's corruption of the natural world, and they want to be prepared when it does.

As dystopian fiction goes, Atwood's near-future is as gritty and dark as can be imagined.  Human depredation has reached new levels, with the corporations greedily commodatizing all aspects of human life, including the sex trade and drug trafficking.  Most of the population lives on the edges of society, scraping by in whatever way-legal or illegal-they can find.  Anyone who runs afoul of the corporations can find themselves snatched off the street by the CorpSeCorp, the security arm of the multinationals that has replaced the armed forces and police.  While the richest and smartest live in walled compounds run by the corporations, the rest are left in slums called the "pleebs".  In the dangerous, crime-ridden world of the pleebs, helping your neighbor is likely to get you arrested or killed, and so a self-defeating selfishness has become the norm.  Like all repressive governments, the complete control of the CorpSeCorp has turned person again person, causing them to act in ways that are against their own interest.

As speculative fiction goes, I sincerely hope that the future Atwood envisions is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Sadly, too much of it felt completely possible to me.  From genetic manipulation to the power of the corporations to the suppression of dissent and the oppression of the people in the name of making money-all too close to reality.  In addition, now that most reputable scientists and rational people have come to accept global warming as a fact, it is not too much of a stretch to think that the destruction of the natural world that prefaces so much of what happens in the book could be around the corner.

Sounds depressing, right?  And this book certainly has its highs and lows in terms of emotional impact.  But ultimately there is hope.  When the "waterless" flood finally comes, those people who learned about the natural world and how to survive without technology and consumer goods were able to survive the chaos of the de-evolution of our society, and were able to begin rebuilding a world more in balance with nature.  As The Year of the Flood ends, the survivors are still finding each other, and I can't help but wonder what the next months and years hold for them.  Several websites I've found have described this book as the second in the MaddAdam trilogy, so I assume that I may yet get my wish to find out if there is indeed hope for the future-of Atwood's fictional society, and for ours.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Like Father, Too Much Like Son?

Any consistent readers of this blog know that I am a superfan of Stephen King.  Despite his many books, the movies made from them, and his gobs of money, I believe he is under-appreciated in literary circles; dismissed as a genre writer, making his name by selling us the same story over and over.  While clearly not every book he has ever written is a literary masterpiece (though I've loved them all), The Stand, It, and The Dark Tower series are masterpieces, in my humble opinion.  As an avid reader and defender of King's literary merit, I was excited to discover that his son, Joe Hill, is also a writer.  I mean, surely the apple didn't fall far from the tree, right?

Hill's debut novel, Heart Shaped Box, is the story of Judas Coyne, and aging heavy metal star with an interest in the macabre and occult.  When an actual ghost is offered for sale on the internet, he can't resist.  The suit containing the ghost arrives in a heart-shaped box, and loses no time in terrorizing Coyne and those closest to him.

In my professional life, I'm taught to lead with the positive, so here it is-this books is scary.  I mean really scary.  I was creeped out pretty much from beginning to end.  It is fast-paced, and when the final show-down comes you are not disappointed.  The characters are pretty well drawn, and there is that subtext of redemption that is present in so many horror novels.  I did feel a little bit of whiplash at the beginning, as Hill wastes no time getting us into the action.  The characters stories are doled out a little at a time, which made the beginning a little disjointed for me.  But eventually all became clear, and there were some twists that I didn't see coming, which I always appreciate.

Despite that, I am left not loving this book, and I'll tell you why-it felt very much like one of his father's not-so-brilliant books.  It is clear to me that Hill has read everything his father has ever written, and whether purposeful or not, some of it ended up in this book.  I kept getting distracted thinking, "Oh, that's like in Christine", or "Hmm, that reminds me of Needful Things" and "Gee, didn't something like this happen in It?"  Yes, I realize that in the first paragraph of this post I said that I chose this book at least partly in hopes that Joe Hill would be like his dad-what can I say, I'm fickle like that!

I don't usually read other reviews of a book before reviewing it myself, but I did check some out for this book, because I thought that maybe I was imagining this Kingcentricness.  While most "official" reviews seem to praise it, the word on Goodreads and blogs is that people were disappointed-one even went so far as to say that Stephen King should be disappointed in his son.  I won't go that far, but I will say that unless Joe Hill, author, can find a way to distance himself from papa, he will probably continue to be perceived as Stephen King-lite, published more for who he is than what he writes.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Blogger Hop-Why Do I Read What I Read

Well, folks, with the Literary Blog Hop only happening every other week, I've decided to join Crazy-for-Books Book Blogger Hop on the off weeks for LBH.  Thanks to both The Blue Bookcase and Crazy-for-Books for hosting these events.  I've certainly found plenty of great bloggers out there as a result.

This week's question is:

Why do you read the genre that you do?  What draws you to it?

First things first-we need to ad an "s" to that word genre.  I read many genres, and all for different reasons.  Since I love lists, let's do this in list format.

1.  Contemporary Fiction-I read contemporary fiction because it says something about the state of our world and society RIGHT NOW.  One of the reasons I like Jodi Picoult's books is because through her (rather exaggerated) plot lines, she does explore social issues facing us in America today.   Medical ethics, school shootings, religion vs. secularism, issues of family and society-contemporary fiction, while not always the most profound, can usually be relied on to be thought provoking.

2.  Literary Fiction-I read literary fiction because it says something about humanity, which is usually transcendent of time or place.  Unless it shows how humans are affected by time and place.  At any rate, sometimes my brain needs more sustenance than others.

3.  Science Fiction-Hated science, love science fiction.  The best science fiction writers say something about the human experience in their work, and they tend to be rather action packed for those times when I want something fun and exciting.

4.  Fantasy-I have been a fantasy fan since I read the Narnia books in sixth grade.  I was given The Wishstone of Shannarah in middle school, and I was hooked.  For a while in high school that was pretty much all I read.I don't read as much now as  used to, but I'm still quite fond of mythical lands full of unusual races.  I think this is why I like role playing games like Final Fantasy and Fable so much.  It's like I'm in the story.

5.  Feminist Fiction:  Ummm....because I'm a feminist!  Toni Morrison, Alica Walker, Margaret Atwood, Sheri Tepper, Sylvia Plath, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler...I feel empowered just typing their names.

6.  Mystery/Thrillers:  They are fun, and usually easy, and often have engaging recurring characters that I enjoy reading about over time.  Also, because my mother reads them and gives me all of her book when she's done with them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: My Bookish Resolutions

Thanks to the lovely bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this weekly event.  This week's topic is Bookish Resolutions.

I am not really a resolution person.  Let's just say that the few times I have made a resolution in January I was back to my pre-New Year's state by February.  Besides, as a teacher it feels like my "new year" is in August, when I go back to school.   But, there are a few things with regard to reading and blogging that I want to do in 2011, so I'll give it the old college try.

1.  Stop requesting so many books on Goodreads: Since discovering Bookswap in May, I've gotten about 60 books.  For a cost of about $4.00 each that sounds like a good thing, right?  Problem is, I already have enough books in my reading room to last me three to four YEARS without buying or borrowing another book.  Seriously, the rush of getting books in my mailbox for so cheap is just too good to pass up.

2.  Read more quality middle-grade and young adult books:  I am almost done with a masters degree in reading, and if I am going to work as a reading specialist as I hope, I need to stay current with what is out there for kids in all age ranges, not just the primary and intermediate grades I teach now.  Besides, my children's and YA blog Second Childhood Reviews is feeling neglected.

3.  Read all of the longer books on my shelf:  Last year I did the 100+ book challenge (here is my post about it), and as a result I avoided some of the longer books on my shelves.  I've already made headway on this goal.  I just finished Stephen King's Under the Dome this weekend, in all of its 1074 page glory.

4.  Get around to some authors I'm ashamed I've never read:  OK, I admit it, I have never read a Jonathan Franzen book, or Phillip Roth, or Dave Eggers, or Ian McEwan, or Salmon Rushdie, or Thomas Pynchon.  Shame, shame on me...I have books from at least three of these authors on my shelves waiting for me to get with the program.  The fact that all of these authors are men are not lost on me so...

5. Read more fiction by men who are not mystery or horror writers:  I'll admit a certain prejudice in my book buying and reading for female authors.  I mean, I read good female authors, like Atwood and Kingsolver and Allende, but nonetheless I should probably get some perspective from the other half of the population.

6.  Blog more about general literary topics:  In reading the many book blogs that I've found, I've come to realize that the ones I enjoy the most are the ones that do more than just review books.  They are the ones that take on interesting literary topics, and talk about reading in general.  I'll have to fit in more time for blogging, but that is doable.  My TV and XBox probably don't need quite so much of my attention.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

If there are two things that Stephen King knows, it's character and setting.  Despite the bizarre situations that he places them in, his characters usually feel completely authentic.  In fact, I think that his real talent as a writer is imagining what the average person would do when confronted with the impossible.  In that sense, Under the Dome represents the most obvious example of what he has spent a career writing about.  He does nothing so well as place his characters under the microscope to see what they will do in in the most trying of circumstances.



Imagine that your entire town is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by an impermeable, impenetrable barrier.  Nothing can go in or out.  In an instant, you become just one creature in a very large terrarium.  That is exactly what happens to the small Maine town of Chester Mills.  As the government outside the dome tries to figure out where it came from and how to get rid of it, the residents of The Mills go about the business of figuring out how to survive their captivity.  In classic King style, there is the corrupt town leader, the drifter with a past, the good-hearted average guy, the strong, feisty woman (in this case, the owner of the town paper), and a cast of townspeople (good, bad, or a little of both) who make up this particular microcosm of America.  If I thought about it long enough, I could probably match every main character from Under the Dome with their counterpart in The Stand (my favorite King book by a green mile!).  What makes this familiar cast work time after time is the fact that most of us know someone exactly like them.  The power struggle unfolds with a Lord of the Flies inevitability, with some people rising to the occasion, and others showing their true, evil nature.

My one criticism of this book is its length.  I'm not averse to a 1000+ page book, if all 1000+ pages are integral to moving the story along.  However, the middle 400 pages or so of this particular tome dragged.  I suppose when you have a story with this many moving parts (there are something like 20 important characters, with many more minor characters), you run the risk of getting bogged down in each individual storyline.  In the end, however, it was worth it.  The last 100 pages were fast-paced and exciting.  And in an example of another thing I love about King's writing, there are no safe characters.  This gives his writing a delicious unpredictability.    But, satisfactorily, the truly bad guys almost always get what's coming to them.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Literary Blog Hop, or How My Mother Made Me the Reader I Am Today

Literary Blog Hop


Welcome to my little corner of the blogosphere!  It is once again time for the ever-entertaining and enlightening Literary Blog Hop, hosted by the lovely Blue Bookcase.  This week's question-

How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction?

I don't ever remember a time when I didn't read.  I like to think that part of that is just my general temperament, but I suspect that like most good things from my early life, it had a lot to do with my mother.  My mother was unable to work outside of the home when I was growing up-partly as a result of vision loss that makes it impossible for her to drive, and partly because in the 1970s if your husband could support the family you were expected to be a stay-at-home mom.  This reality really frustrated my mother, who is easily one of the smartest people I know (and I'm not just saying that because she's my mom, honest!).  To stimulate her intellectual self, she read, A LOT!  She has always read, and still reads, at least three times what I do in a week.  I grew up watching her devour books and keep going back for more.  I always enjoyed reading for pleasure, but having her in the house meant that the variety and number of books I had access to was truly enormous.  She has very eclectic reading tastes, and I could get my hands on just about anything, from classics to mysteries to memoirs to literary fiction.  As a teen my favorites were fantasy and science fiction novels (which are two genres she rarely reads-teenage rebellion?  hmmmmm...), but if I ran out of aliens or elves to read about, I could always find something to challenge my mind.  

Come to think of it, my mother has had just as large an impact on my adult reading life.  As a single parent for most of my 20s, working two jobs to support myself and my daughter, my mother passed on to me all of the books that she bought.  For years I almost never bought my own or went to the library, because I had a boxful waiting for me at every visit.  Now that I am in a position to buy my own books, I have so many hand-me-downs that I could read for about four years without ever having to buy or borrow another book (not that I will, though my Goodreads Bookswap addiction may soon require an intervention).   All in all I'd say that my mother made me the reader I am today, and for that I will be forever grateful!

Candy Everybody Wants, by Josh Kilmer Purcell

If there is a lesson in Candy Everybody Wants, it is to be careful what you wish for. 

The story centers in Jayson (the Y is very important, it shows flair), a gay teenager living in Wisconsin in the early 80s.  His mom is a "free spirit" artist, his brother has a developmental disability, his best friends are twins that live next door with their religious fundamentalist parents.  Jayson has one overarching goal-to be famous, just like his celebrity crush, Devin Williamson.  The summer before high school finds him directing his friends and starring in his own Dallas/Dynasty spin-off.  When his performance (in drag) is accidentally shown to the whole town, his mother sends him to live with father-an actor she hooked up with once after a performance, but who Jayson finds is clearly as queer as a three dollar bill.  He also runs a male escort service, but he takes in Jayson with equanimity.  Also staying with dear old dad-Jayson's favorite child actor, Devin Williamson.  Between Devin and his father, Jayson now has enough juice to get him noticed in Hollywood-but will it turn out to be everything he hoped?

Sadly, Candy Everybody Wants did not turn out to be everything I hoped.  After reading I Am Not Myself These Days, Purcell's memoir of his days in drag, I was expecting a slightly snarky, witty, and insightful novel about the dangers of seeking fame.   I think that what made his memoir successful was the raw honesty with which it was written, and the fact that you knew it was about a real person.  In Candy Everybody Wants, the authenticity was missing to a certain extent.  Plus, he really threw in every late 70s/early 80s character stereotype there was.  Flamboyant gay teen, drug-using promiscuous bisexual mother, former teen-idol on the skids, closeted gay theater actor, homophobic meathead football player, militant lesbian...few of the characters, including Jayson, felt completely developed. 

The story itself was entertaining, and I could see it making a great, quirky comedy movie.  But as a follow-up to his first book, this one left me a little flat.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

100 Books in 2010

Last year, in honor of my first full year of blogging, I participated in the 100+ Book Challenge hosted by The Home Girl's Book Blog.  I've been averaging between 60 and 75 books a year, so I figured that getting up to 100 was a way to improve my close personal relationship with my to-be-read shelves.

Yesterday, with two hours and 39 minutes to spare, I finished my 100th book.  I had to read 5 young adult novels in two days to make it happen, but I did it.  I completed the challenge.  And guess what-today, if I'm keeping a yearly total, I'm back to zero, zip, zilch, nada, none.  The euphoria of completing last year's challenge is replaced by a sense of emptiness and despair...

OK, not really, but here's what I learned from participating in this challenge in 2010-I don't like reading on someone else's schedule.  Yes, I know I signed up of my own free will, but as the year progressed I found myself more focused on quantity rather than quality, on accumulating titles rather than knowledge or literary wisdom.  I found myself choosing my books not by their topic or my interests, but by their length.  Satanic Verses-too long for 2010.  Under the Dome by Stephen King-sorry, you'll have to wait.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin-so sorry, I know my friend recommended you to me last winter, but you just have too many pages for me.  I passed over books I really wanted to read by Diana Gabaldon, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates simply because I thought they would take too long.

Constant Reader, I hear you saying, "Why not just give up on the challenge?  It's not like you win money for finishing, or get punished if you don't."  But one of the things about myself that I am generally proud of is my stick-to-it-iveness, my commitment to finishing what I start.  And it wasn't all bad-I did enjoy watching my numbers climb.  At the end my friends even got into the act, cheering me on with Facebook messages as I rushed to finish the last several titles.  But when I saw the post for the 2011 100+Book Challenge, I clicked the back button.  And the first book I picked up off my shelf today-Under the Dome, the 1000+ page tome that has been sitting on my TBR pile for far too long, given how much I love reading my Uncle Stevie!  My challenge this year?  To read what I want, when I want, and try to keep my Goodreads Bookswap addiction under control.  And if I get to the end of 2011 having had a full year of literary goodness, I will consider the year a raving success.