Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the category “2 stars – an ok book”

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #47: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

In one of my very favorite short stories, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, the narrator tells us that one of the main character, Victor, “searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled.”  I love that succinct summary of the process of a son coming to terms with his relationship with his father.  This came to mind a lot as I read Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which seemed to be saying essentially the same thing about a daughter and her mother but took pages and pages and pages to do so.  I can see why the novel is so popular, and to be embarrassingly honest, I have to admit that I have been known to watch the movie on TV a few times even though I know it’s a bit of a schlocky mess.  I didn’t necessarily dislike the novel, but I felt it could have been cut down by about half and still gotten the job done.  I read it avidly for the first few chapters but began to lose interest fairly quickly.

The novel follows Sidda, a successful playwright who unwisely discloses her conflicted feelings about her mother to an interviewer.  When the interview is published, Sidda’s very southern and very feisty mother, Vivi, cuts Sidda out of her life.  At the same time, Sidda’s beginning to question her relationship with her fiancé, the apparently perfect Connor.  Sidda flees all of her troubles by borrowing a friend’s secluded island home in the Pacific Northwest.  While she’s there, her mother’s lifelong best friends, who call themselves the Ya-Yas, intrude into Sidda’s solitude and reveal to her some things about her past which begin to change her mind about her mother.  Despite a few changes of location, the movie follows the book pretty closely, but there were a few surprises.  I especially enjoyed the scene in which the Ya-Yas managed to sneak alcohol into their children’s cotillions, got caught, and were banned from the club.

I probably would have enjoyed this novel more if I hadn’t broken my rule about reading the book before watching the movie (a rule I only adhere to about 90% of the time).  I still think, though, that regardless of when I read the novel, I would have found it a bit long.  I love strong women, especially strong southern women, but there were a lot of them in this book and they just needed to talk to each other.  I don’t want to be too harsh; I just spent a great deal of this book wishing Sidda and Vivi would just forgive each other already.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #46: Are We There Yet? by David Levithan

Continuing my David Levithan mania, I picked up Are We There Yet?  Sadly, through no fault of the novel itself, I didn’t enjoy this story as well as the other Levithan novels I’ve read.  Really, it’s not the book’s fault; I just couldn’t relate to the characters as well.  I sympathized with their problems, but their experience is so different from my own that it was hard to really understand them.  Also, any book probably would have paled in comparison to Boy Meets Boy, so it was even more unfortunate that I read this one after that one.

Anyway, the novel is about two brothers, teenaged Elijah and grown-up Danny, whose parents “trick” them into taking a vacation in Italy together.  The brothers are very different from each other, and neither one really knows what to do with the other.  Uptight, hardworking Danny doesn’t understand his free-spirited little brother, and Elijah can’t figure out why Danny is so focused on work.  The relationship becomes even more strained with Elijah meets a young American woman who is also staying in Italy and begins spending all of his time with her.  Danny warns his brother to be cautious with his emotions, but Elijah falls hard for the girl.

Like Levithan’s other books, this novel is well-written and the characters were realistic and interesting.  As an only child, though, I had a hard time empathizing with the characters.  The main conflict is the one between the brothers, and I felt sorry for them but just couldn’t really understand the ups and downs of their relationship.  Like I said, though, this is my problem, not a problem with the novel itself.  I imagine most people would enjoy it more than I did.  I still love Levithan’s work, and the next one of his novels I read was fantastic.  Hopefully, I’ll get to that review before the end of year.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #23: The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine

Joseph and Betty are in their late seventies when Joseph asks for a divorce; his new – much younger – wife persuades him that the honourable thing to do would be to minimise alimony and marital asset division. Betty and her two middle-aged daughters Miranda (a flamboyant and failed literary agent) and Annie (a practical and frustrated librarian) move to a beach house owned by a nebulous cousin in Westport, where they are drawn in to the web of polite lies and secrets of the leisured classes.

While it’s nice to read a book in which the protagonists are older, with lives behind them as well as ahead, I found it hard to enjoy – the “sensible” characters were annoyingly childish and impractical for grown women and the character with “sense” lacks clear-sightedness and tact.

The other book I’ve read by Cathleen Schine, The Love Letter, is fluffy but nice, with something of the same lucidity that characterises Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. The Three Weissmans of Westport is in the same vein with regard to plot and setting, a story of middle-aged love affairs and seaside houses. It is also an update of Sense and Sensibility, which is its downfall – Schine tries so hard to make her characters, plot-lines and themes of cross-class romance and family drama fit the schemata of the Austen novel, while maintaining an element of surprise, that the novel creaks at the joins, lacking the engaging breeziness of The Love Letter and highlighting Sense and Sensibility as a far superior novel.

loopyker’s #CBR4 Review #08: The Killings at Badger’s Drift: Chief Inspector Barnaby Series, Book 1 by Caroline Graham

badgersdriftblogI’m a fan of the TV show, Midsomer Murders, and the first five books in Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby Series inspired this TV show, so I thought I’d see how the audiobooks compare starting with The Killings at Badger’s Drift: Chief Inspector Barnaby Series, Book 1 . I haven’t read any of the original (7) print books.

If you’ve seen the British TV show, then you know that Midsomer Murders follows the investigations of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his younger sidekick Sgt. Gavin Troy, around the quaint little villages in the English countryside . These are slower paced murder mysteries when compared to typical American shows. Runtime per episode is 100 minutes. If you find these too slow-paced for you, then the 8-13 hour or more length of the audio books won’t be to your taste.

Compared to the TV show, I found both the Barnaby and Troy characters less likeable. DCI Barnaby was missing that subtle, warm humour portrayed so well by actor John Nettles and similarly, Sgt. Troy was missing the sweetness to his inexperienced bumbling that Daniel Casey (and later Jason Hugh as DS Jones) brought to the roll.

Read the rest of the review at Loopy Ker’s Life

Sophia’s CBR4 Review #27: “Wallflower at the Orgy” by Nora Ephron

I’m prWallflower at the Orgyetty sure Wallflower at the Orgy (1980) by Nora Ephron was another one of those books I just stumbled upon while browsing my library’s kindle book selection. I liked When Harry Met Sally, so my general impression of Nora Ephron was favorable, and the title of this book sounded both exciting (orgy) and relatable (wallflower). I decided to give it a try.

The book consists of a series of essays written by Nora Ephron in 1968 and 1969. Although there were a couple of interesting essays that caught my attention, I don’t think I would have even finished this book if it weren’t so short. The main problem was that many of the subjects felt dated, and without more contemporary explanation of the context of the time and the people, it didn’t work for me. Then throw in a couple of obscure character subjects and some uncomfortably dated rape jokes and I pretty much lost interest.

Read the rest of my review here.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #45, A World Made of Blood by Sebastian Junger

“What’s more frightening at age thirty: a rebel checkpoint or a job interview for a life you don’t want?” -Sebastian Junger

A World Made of Blood is Sebastian Junger’s first stab of fiction, in the form of a short e-book based on an event that happened in his young journalistic career. I would probably have been able to guess that this was a) his first fictional piece, and b) based on a true-life event had I not already been made aware of these facts. This is not necessarily because the piece itself is bad, but because it falls prey to a lot of common habits of first-time fiction writers who are used to staying firmly in the realm of fact.

A World Made of Blood is the story of Daniel, a young journalist (and stand-in for Junger) and his more seasoned photographer, Andre. Daniel and Andre find themselves in the middle of Sierra Leone with a militia unit who are, to put it lightly, ambivalent about the presence of journalists in their ranks. The story takes place within the span of twenty-four hours, and reads like a day-in-the-life of a relatively green foreign war correspondent with the addition of a devastating (and quite literary) conclusion. This is good and bad: good, because Junger uses his well-honed journalistic prose skills to evoke an almost frighteningly vivid sense of place; bad, because in doing so, he manages to leave out quite a bit of narrative detail. Junger manages to simultaneously explain too much and too little. The story is peppered with generally unnecessary journalistic asides (“Andre’s the photographer” is a prime example of the kind of just-the-facts-please sentences that populate it), while neglecting to develop its characters in any meaningful way. Junger, so good at writing for characters that exist in real-life, seems to shy away from applying the same deep insight his fictional characters. This is probably because the main character is based on himself. It’s a great tool for beginning fiction writers, basing a main character on oneself, but it tends to lead one to take all sorts of things for granted. A lot of the relatively short span of the story seems like it is spent setting the stage; we get a great sense of where Daniel and Andre are, but not why they’re there, and who they are, and what they want. This is a shame, because main characters don’t get much more interesting than conflict-seeking journalists, but for some reason Junger stops short of fully exploring the ethos’ of his main characters the way he would of his non-fiction subjects.

The source of this, as with the story’s other, smaller problems, is likely Junger’s self-consciousness. Putting yourself out there in fictional form is always intimidating, but it’s especially intimidating if you are known for non-fiction. When you’re used to journalism, fiction feels like cheating. All the weird, godlike positions fiction writers have to take, like assigning motivations and physicality to their characters, shifting around timelines and flat-out inventing facts, do not come naturally to writers used to maintaining the hard line of journalistic ethics. This becomes even more complicated when you’re writing about an event that had a profound effect on your own life, as Junger is here. You can feel his self-consciousness in his resistance to plumb too deeply into his characters, and his prose, which wavers between his own elegiac, descriptive quality and a strange, formless staccato that seems meant to evoke Hemingway. A lot of writers want to write like Hemingway, and it’s no wonder—his spare, mournfully stoic prose is a thing of beauty. But just like you can’t paint like Picasso until you’ve learned to draw a proportionate human face, you can’t write like Hemingway until you’ve splayed out your characters like cadavers, taken them apart and put them back together, spraying a lot of blood on the table in the process. Eventually, you can clean it up into clean, workmanlike sentences. But you can’t do that until you get a little messy. Here, it seems Junger was afraid to get to messy. It’s no wonder: this is a story based on a complicated, traumatic incident. It’s not easy to revisit those, fictionally or non-fictionally, and the effort Junger makes to do it here is admirable. Still, in the end the story reads less like a fully-formed narrative and more like a race to the finish line of catharsis.

Fittingly then, it’s at the end where he finally finds his writerly feet. The lead-up to the climax and conclusions feels a bit like a hastily constructed tent, but once we get under it there is something well worth seeing:

“Scattered in the packed red dirt, their belongings looked pathetic, almost embarrassing. Dead bodies look pathetic in the same way, Daniel thinks. HE hasn’t seen very many, but on some level there’s always the smug thought, ‘I’m alive, you’re dead.'” There’s no greater gulf between two people, no greater inequality.”

“The killers would move on up the road toward the rest of their brutal little lives while the three of them stayed where they were, unrecognizable in their last agony, forever unconcerned with the affairs of men. The shadows would lengthen and it wouldn’t matter and the sun would set and it wouldn’t matter and finally dusk would creep in—the birdcalls, the sudden agitation of the forest—and still it wouldn’t matter.”

This kind of beautiful prose, occupying the fraught tension point between grief and fear, made it well worth reading A World Made of Blood until the end. I just wish he would have taken his time getting there.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #104: Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a memoir and not outrageous fiction, which made it all the sadder. While hysterically funny at times and morbidly depressing at others, Running with Scissors is in fact a story of child abuse not all that different from “A Child called It.” And while it was evident that the author wrote the book as humor in order to try to contend with his horribly abusive childhood, I am frankly amazed at all the reviewers who gave it a thumbs up for its “bawdy wacky humor” and did not simultaneously weep tears of outrage on behalf of poor Augusten.

Augusten is the child of a couple who despise each other. The mother is a self-absorbed Southern dilettante and would-be poet who is probably bi-polar, the father a cold-blooded alcoholic who is completely disinterested in his son. Both parents have spent years physically and verbally abusing each other, until he finally walks away and never looks back. She discovers her homosexuality and signs over custody of her 13-year-old son to her psychiatrist, freeing herself to indulge her lunacy which periodically devolves into full-fledged psychotic outbreaks (sometimes directed at Augusten himself) and confinement in a mental hospital. Augusten’s next three years are spent living in Dr. Finch’s household with a variety of mental patients, which include Dr. Finch himself (he reads the future in his own turds, hands out psychiatric meds like candy, and openly keeps several wives and mistresses), his wife, children—both biological and adopted—and several of Dr. Finch’s mental patients. The house is a collapsing, roach-infested Victorian pile, and everyone lives according to their own rules, or lack thereof.

Augusten is removed from school when Finch devises a fake suicide attempt for the boy, and his rape by a resident adult pedophile is viewed more or less benevolently as a “relationship” by his new guardian. Augusten reminded me of nothing so much as the ball in a pinball machine, batted back and forth between his psychotic mother, his obsessed pedophile lover, the lunatic Dr. Finch, and the crazy episodes of the Finch “children.” All the “freedom” he is granted to choose his own lifestyle and life rules equals so much chaos, and ultimately turns into boredom as Augusten discovers by age 16 that his lack of education, lack of life skills and lack of direction makes him unsuited to survive in the outside world. His mother’s sudden “revelation” that she has been raped, overmedicated, and manipulated for years by the man she had turned her child over to, creates a moment of crisis for Augusten in which he is asked to choose sides. How he resolves this and whether he emerges into adulthood intact is the subject of a second memoir.

While laughing aloud at some moments (he is a truly funny guy and writes a great turn of phrase), I basically found myself wincing and outright cringing through much of this book. The Glass Castle is a profoundly funny, insightful, and poignant memoir about a dysfunctional family; Running With Scissors, for all its “bawdy wackiness,” made me downright sick with anger at what this child suffered–and how society failed him. I can only wonder that he survived to tell the tale.

loveallthis’s #cbr4 reviews 12, 13, 14: Divergent, Raylan, Zone One

(cross-posted from my blog.)

12 / Divergent by Veronica Roth

So: The Giver and The Hunger Games got busy, and nine months later, Divergent happened.

Future Chicago is on lockdown, and everyone who’s not homeless lives in one of five factions. Each faction is characterized by a quality and carries out its own task in the greater community. Amity’s all about getting along, and they farm. Abnegation members are selfless, and they teach and do community work. Erudite are smart, and they produce the tech. Candor don’t lie, and honestly I have no idea what they contribute. Dauntless are brave, and protect everyone from whatever’s outside. (It’s not very clear what happened in this world, or what the threat is. No matter: the danger comes from well inside the fence.)

Tris Prior, our young female protagonist, owes much to Katniss: she’s smart, vibrant, and none too fond of people telling her what to do. Her unlikely transformation from a weak, long-haired girl in Abnegation to a brave, daring, tattooed fighter in Dauntless is well-crafted and compelling. Oh, and because of course, she’s super-special in a particular way that gives her special abilities but puts her in danger.

This is not a brilliant book, but the solid combination of dystopian sci-fi, action, steamy teenage infatuation, drug-induced head games, and good old-fashioned train-jumpin’ and sneakin’ around is totally fun.

Four stars: sign me up to read the sequel. (Of course there’s a sequel.)

13 / Raylan by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is an executive producer on Justified, which is based on his short storyFire in the Hole, featuring the character Raylan Givens. Or, as I like to call him, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (Sounds better that way.)

Now, Justified is one of the best-written, -directed, -acted shows on television. I was pretty excited about this book, which turned out to be a… totally okay, unremarkable, moderately enjoyable read with a completely forgettable plot and secondary cast of characters.

Boo, Elmore. Boo.

Two stars for an excuse to think about Timothy Olyphant for a few hours. (If you haven’t watched the show yet, do yourself a favor and start now.)

14 / Zone One by Colson Whitehead

I don’t love zombie stories; I find them a little too plausibly scary. So no, I don’t know what I was doing reading Zone One. We follow Mark Spitz, part of a civilian squad of sweepers who are clearing lower Manhattan after the zombie-pocalypse of recent past.

We figure out what happened to New York (and the world) through a series of reminiscences and flashbacks. I’m a sucker for backstory stories, so I really enjoyed piecing the history together.

In between the flashbacks, things go pretty well, then only somewhat well, then terribly, horribly wrong. I mean, come on. Zombies. Not good news.

Three stars. Unfortunately not my thing.

Siege’s #CBR4 #44: The Road to Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

In which Siege does not enjoy Lovecraft nearly as much as she’d hoped, no matter how many prehistoric albino gorillas were involved.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #26: The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next #1) by Jasper Fforde

Looking for an alternate reality detective story that involves great books, but goes by quickly? Thursday Next just might be the gal for you. Read more at my blog …

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