Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “funkyfacecat”

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #31: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Heyer’s work is divided into dashing Regency-set romances and mostly light-hearted detective novels set 1920-1955ish. I very much enjoy the latter in the same way as I enjoy Agatha Christie, but they differ from Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple series in that the actual police rather than private detectives play a central role, and  I’d say they’re slightly inferior in quality as well – read individually every now and then Heyer’s detective fiction is fun but read many at the same time they start to blur into one as there is usually a central romance and main characters are rarely given features other than “pleasant,” “cynical and snide with a heart of gold,” “cynical and snide with the cold dead eyes of a killer,” “flamboyant foreigner,” “obviously gay and unmanly interior designer” and so on. The villains are generally well-drawn and various, though, and overall there’s a sense of ease rather than serious moral questions or threat.

Footsteps in the Dark is typical in that it involves young upper-class people who become embroiled in strange happenings in a country house that two of them have inherited. There are mysterious groaning noises, secret passages, and it’s all quite Gothic, a fact variously relished and feared by the group – until it’s realised that it must be human agency causing the eerie events, and there are, of course, several suspicious characters in the neighbourhood.

The novel generates a bit of suspense, there is an unlikely love story, and there is plenty of good-humoured banter. The solution to the mystery is a bit different than the usual missing will or long-standing grudge, and it’s a fun, if slight read.

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Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #30: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Everybody knows what happens in Twilight, right? Bella is an angsty sixteen year old who is pale and clumsy and Edward is an angsty 80 year old vampire who is pale but swift and strong and sparkles in the sun like a marble statue of diamonds, or words to that effect. They meet when Bella moves to Forks, Washington, where Edward and his “family” live because it’s so cloudy all the time that the sun can’t reveal their true sparkly identities…And they hunt bears and mountain lions rather than people. Bella and Edward develop an intense connection, but this might endanger her life because…he is a vampire who may not be able to resist his…urges.

Things I like about Twilight: Bella and Edward have conversations. They may seem trivial, but they are genuinely interested in each other and they like talking to each other and finding out about each other, which is refreshing considering in how many YA and other romance novels love at first sight happens and then there’s a complication and then things end happily and then you realise that the protagonists have barely spoken two words to each other EVER or been in the same room without exchanging a couple of cute lines and then jumping into bed together / cut to complication and separate angsting until the reunion as the end credits roll and you picture them like Elaine Robinson and Dustin Hoffman sitting on the bus staring into space as it rolls into the sunset all “right, what now? Will this ever not be awkward?” In the films, of course, the conversation was replaced with moody looks and lip-biting and stupid music.

Things I don’t like: HE WATCHES HER SLEEP AND LISTENS TO HER SLEEPTALK WITHOUT HER KNOWING HE IS THERE. So wrong.

Stuff that’s supposed to come across as romantic but is actually creepy as hell is perhaps endemic to a certain kind of YA literature – consider all the random fistfights and possessiveness in which Elizabeth Wakefield and Todd Wilkins were enmeshed in the Sweet Valley High series, for instance. Anyone else have any other examples? I’d be really interested. Or examples of the opposite, well-crafted and realistic and non-creepy relationships in YA lit? And if no one else has read SVH…I’ll get me coat.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #29: Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch is an undertaker/poet in a small town in America, and seems to be very good at both his jobs. In these he ponders, with humour and sadness, the often-misunderstood business of burial and its large-scale takeover by faceless corporations, Western notions of death and ritual, and the ties that make up homes and communities. He also discusses how much he hates his son’s cat and what he does when he doesn’t like poets.

Lynch is a talented story-teller, even making statistics and business information interesting, but it is his musings on the Big Questions, fate and fear and life and death that make this book worth reading. It isn’t uplifting in the conventional sense, there’s far too much realism and occasional bitterness, but it’s an enriching read that exudes camaraderie, leaving you feeling as if you’ve had a great and rambling conversation with a very intelligent and funny person down at the pub (although Lynch quit drinking-alcoholism in his life and family are the subject of one essay).

“We must be steady in our wounds, loyal to our doom, and patient in the machinery of heaven.”

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #27: White Noise by Don DeLillo

I did not like White Noise (1985). I thought it collapses under the weight of its own shallowness, that the gradual leeching of humanity from its main characters as they become constructs, empty soulless parodies of themselves and white middle-class America in the mid-nineteen-eighties, also removes anything remotely interesting from their problems and lives and that that is the point. I can also never remember what happens in the final third of the novel and neither can anyone else I know who has read it.

Jack Gladney is a college professor of “Hitler Studies” who has invented a middle initial to create a sense of gravitas, who doesn’t speak German and never mentions the Holocaust, preferring to focus on analysing the significance of Nazi SS uniforms and the mechanics of parades that induce mass hysteria. His wife Babette teaches people to walk properly and their blended family mostly eats processed food and watches TV. Jack and Babette fear death; this fear dominates their lives, until an event that threatens their family and neighbourhood forces them to engage with this fear on a visceral level and by then I cared so very very little about any of this.

White Noise could have been an enjoyable satire for me had it not seemed obsessed with taking itself beyond satire into a world of simulacra and multiple layers of metaness and then into a life-sucking vacuum, and were it not so very dreary and repetitive. It’s all quite clever and post-modern, obviously, and occasionally provokes a smirk of recognition, and a comment on consumer culture and modern psychotherapy and all sorts of incredibly relevant things-I can see why people admire, even like it, but I felt that it was more concerned with playing head games than being literature.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #25: These Wonderful Rumours by May Smith

“These Wonderful Rumours” refers to the ephemeral scuttlebutt of wartime: stories of parachuting nuns, invasions on bicycles, humble fishmongers as fifth columnists and so on. May Smith’s diaries 1939-1945 regards these with amused scepticism, but their author does find much to worry about with rationing, evacuees, air raids, and friends and relatives in the army. Smith worked as a primary school teacher in the English Midlands during the war, lived with her parents, and managed to lead an active social life despite the war and extra duties, which involved fending off the attentions of at least two suitors, lectures on English Literature and Modern History, and a great deal of shopping and tennis.

Her diaries, modelled on E.M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady (also published by Virago and an absolute delight) are engaging, often droll and occasionally irritating. Smith’s romantic life is particularly amusing; her entries on Poor Old Dougie or Freddie who is variously Dear and Faithless are a precursor to Bridget Jones in her attempts to figure out her emotions and decipher the codes of courtship:

“Wednesday, December 20th 1939: Received my post at dinnertime – cards and a large carrier bag containing the Promised Bird from Doug – though it was addressed to Mother. Very thrilled – a proper ‘Dougie’ touch. He doesn’t say it with flowers, oh no! Dougie has to shower birds. Howbeit, it looks very succulent, and I like poultry.”

There is a lot about hats and coats and dresses, and the details of life during the Blitz and observations on politics and the progress of the War are interesting and insightful. While the pace slightly drags towards the end of the volume, well, so did the war, highlighting how constant anxiety and sometime panic can become routine.

“Wednesday, July 10th 1940: Torrents of rain fell all day long. Rumbles of thunder also sounded – very ominously – this afternoon, whereat I received a frenzied note from Miss H, asking Was it Thunder or Bombs?’ Replied in consolatory vein, and shortly afterwards lightning appeared, confirming my diagnosis.”

The diaries serve as a view into how ordinary people outside London (often the focus of Blitz narratives) perceived the war, and how important community spirit and snatching as many good times as possible were. I enjoyed them very much; they make a good read with a cup of tea and a cosy window seat.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #24: South Riding by Winifred Holtby

South Riding by Winifred Holtby is a large novel that contains multitudes and contradictions, nevertheless held tightly in place by its structure, the unusual one of town council responsibilities: Education, Highways and Bridges, Agriculture and Small Holdings, Public Health, Public Assistance, Mental Deficiency, Finance, and Housing and Town Planning and the short space of time it happens in. If I had to sum its scope and emotional topography up quickly it would be Gone with the Wind meets D.H. Lawrence, but it’s more realistic than the former and less…icky…than the latter.

The novel was written and set in the mid-1930s, in a Britain still scarred by the First World War, during a depression, under the clouds of intensifying Nazism and power struggles in Europe.  Sarah Burton is a cynically idealistic 37 year old returning to Yorkshire’s South Riding to take up the post of headmistress at a girls’ school. Her motto is “take what you want and pay for it,” her ambition is to turn the struggling school into an efficient and inspiring institute. Robert Carne is a gentleman farmer with a crumbling family estate and a wife in a mental institute and a highly-strung daughter who becomes Sarah’s pupil. The usual sort of thing both does and doesn’t happen – the two form the central relationship of the book, representing diametrically opposed politics, heritage, attitudes towards both future and past, but their interactions take an unusual course. Networked to their narrative are multiple others, tales of corrupt councillors and poor families stuck in their stations, in the fading dreams of ambitious but impoverished girls, in the transition from agriculture to industry. The question of “who pays for it?” becomes a centrally defining question for the novel, adding a layer of philosophical musing tightly bound to practical consideration and in no way impairing drama and humour.

South Riding is a difficult read because of its sprawl but it’s definitely rewarding, with odd and comic turns of phrase, flashes of insight into universal character and motivation, well-evoked conflicts within a community and an era, strong and complex characters and plenty of quiet, sometimes sly, humour and pathos.  There also happens to be a BBC miniseries of South Riding for those who like that sort of thing.

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.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #22: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

So. Behind. But am finally on holiday with a guilt-free conscience due to handing in a piece of work the other day, so…laissez les bon temps rouler. (I am also currently very temporarily in France, which I find quite exciting).

I’ve loved Robin McKinley’s work since I read The Blue Sword at the tender age of 11 (there’s a heroine who’s confused and lost and not entirely good-tempered and learns to sword-fight on horseback very quickly and it’s generally awesome!). She is one of my top five favourite authors, but I haven’t read all of her books. And this is because rather than ordering them all at once from Amazon or some other tax-dodging outfit, I prefer to stumble across them, in secondhand bookshops from Helsinki to Florida and friends’ bookshelves and left behind in youth hostels.

Spindle’s End is a riff on Sleeping Beauty. It begins with a long-awaited birth and a christening and a vengeful fairy left uninvited, but then takes on a new twist as Rosie is smuggled away in the aftermath of the fairy’s curse by Katriona, a girl who can talk to animals and who lives in a tiny village with her aunt who is a good fairy. Rosie grows up into an intelligent tomboy, seemingly safe around animals and common villagers, but the evil Pernicia spares no effort in trying to track her down…There are spells and enchantments and glamours, but also farm animals and cooking and babies. Fairies function in a similar way in this particular kingdom as witches do in other fantasy stories – sort of combined midwifes/healers and potential tricksters.

Pernicia’s motivations are left quite cloudy – she is generally a force of evil and seeks revenge for some slight centuries ago, and the choices involved in the ending of the novel is a bit confusing, for me, anyway. McKinley’s work mixes the romantic and the realistic, the eldritch and the heimlich with ease. Spindle’s End is not up there with McKinley’s most innovative or best (which I would say are Sunshine, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Deerskin) but it’s generally very good – a comfort read with occasional flashes of excitement.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review 21: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

I first found out about this book in ElCicco’s review, and as well as the plot summary, I was struck by both the title and the cover – it evoked F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath’s Journals  and all sorts of vague images of post-war Americana. The UK cover is a bit different , but still nice enough for me to succumb to buying the book brand new in hardcover, which I am usually far too broke to do.

The title of Tigers in Red Weather, taken from a Wallace Stevens poem (randomly alluded to in the text), is oddly fitting for this tale of the teeth behind affectionate family smiles. Nick is a strong and strangely beautiful woman, married to Hughes who she barely knew before the war – both are deeply in love but tempted elsewhere. Helena is her cousin, also married to a man she hardly knows, who promises to take care of her and does it by encouraging her to take “mother’s little helper” tranquillizers and amphetamines. Nick’s daughter Daisy (Gatsby reference?) is golden and unhappy in love, Helena’s son Ed is an aloof observer, warped by his father. Their holiday paradise on Martha’s Vineyard is disturbed by a murder, and suggestions that one of the family may have been involved on some level.

Most of the book I really enjoyed – Nick is a charming and well-drawn character, even if she isn’t particularly original – she’s basically Daisy from The Great Gatsby grown up, after a war that’s scarred her but lightly. Her fraught, fragile moments, however, are evocative, and as is her struggle to love the man she’s with. Her daughter is also naive, fond, foolish – her agonies of first love are very relatable. The other side of the family doesn’t fare as well; Helena is quite uninteresting and often exasperating, and her son seems like he crept in from another novel entirely.

Nick, her husband Hughes, Daisy, Helena and Ed each have their own chapter. Ed’s chapter is the most jarring; he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the chapters. I suspect his chapter is supposed to show the others up in sharp relief, causing us to re-evaluate everything else, and it probably symbolises all sorts of things, but to me it just felt…cheap and unnecessary. It kind of dampened my enjoyment of the whole book, which is generally well-written, particularly with regard to atmosphere – the clinking of ice and cigarette smoke form a constant low-tempo background to the plot. It will be interesting to see what Klaussmann writes next.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #20: Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar

I was kind of suffering from writer’s block last week, and in between howling at the heavens for missing pieces to fall from the sky and insight to rise from the earth in a stream of eloquent and structured sentences, I somehow got to reading the Gossip Girl recaps on Television Without Pity. I’d watched most of the first couple of seasons of the show when it first aired, as it was quite relaxing to watch TV where I couldn’t relate at all to anybody’s life, and Jacob Clifton the recapper mentioned the books a few times, and I’ve been on a YA kick lately, so I thought…why not?

I ordered Gossip Girl from my local library, and read it in an evening. I was surprised by some things – the swearing, how the Chuck Bass character is basically a harasser/wannabe-rapist rather than a cavalier, broken soul, and indeed how much all the characters are patrician hooligans instead of overly sophisticated and entitled teenagers. Another surprising thing is how the writer seems to regard her characters with so little sympathy. The tone veers between piss-taking and vitriol-spewing – both Dan and Blair, for instance, are skewered mercilessly, and it is sporadically amusing but quite often just frustrating. It seems more like something written by Bret Easton Ellis than a young adult novel sometimes.

I don’t know. I guess I was disappointed that the TV show – not to mention the recaps – somehow evoke more depth (depth in the most shallow terms possible, like, a children’s inflatable paddling pool rather than a puddle) than the book does, and that Chuck faced no consequences for his treatment of Jenny, and that there was generally no heart or soul. I recently read a couple of the Princess Diary books (the thing that I’m writing is pretty intense and occasionally depressing so escapism-tastic) and  by comparison they were warm and witty despite their silliness. Gossip Girl was, by and large, cold. And yeah, it was probably meant to be like that, to evoke the narcissism and entitlement and privilege of the characters who nobody really cares about, even in the book – it’s all frenemies and romances that are more for show than substance (Blair’s fixation for making her relationship with Nate pan out according to cinematic tropes, for example) and oblivious parents wrapped up in their own lives.

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