United States of Books – Songs In Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris

I somehow managed to make 3 references to The Simpsons in my original draft of these — and almost made one more before I decided to knock it off. I only left one, it seemed apt. The major difference between this book and The Simpsons, of course, is that one brings happiness, smiles and joy to people; the other one has no yellow people and everyone has 5 fingers on each hand.

Songs In Ordinary TimeSongs In Ordinary Time

by Mary McGarry Morris

Paperback, 740 pg.
Penguin Books, 1996

Read: April 6 – 13, 2016


There’s a stereotype about Oscar-bait movies the come out late in the year, super-serious movies with super-serious actors about families in crisis, social unrest, a woman standing on her own, and so on. Nothing anyone really wants to see, but we all take it seriously. Yes, that’s a stereotype, an over-generalization, blah blah blah — but we all know that kind of movie. This book is like that — deadly serious, grim, full of people with no capacity for joy or to make a wise decision — or any action that involves a lack of melodrama.

I just couldn’t force myself to care about this one — not one bit.

The book centers on a divorced mother of three, Marie Fermoyle, and her children: Alice, Norm and Benjy. Marie’s barely scraping by, teeters between despondency and angry outbursts. Until Omar Duvall comes to town. The best thing that could possibly be said about Omar is that he’s a two-bit hustler and womanizer. Much worse could be said about him. Marie is so desperate for a way out of her life, that she falls for his flummery. Sam, Marie’s ex, is the town drunkard — a hopeless alcoholic, surviving on crumbs his sister gives him to get by, the children go out of their way to avoid him — as does pretty much everyone. The new priest in town, and Sam’s brother-in-law are pretty much the only exceptions to that. The priest is, well — he has problems, and the brother-in-law is henpecked and an obscene phone-caller. There are other characters — several, in fact — but let’s limit this to these characters. I could go on and on. Not unlike Morris.

A couple of months back, I caught a little flack because I didn’t buy a Roman Catholic priest character in crisis — I bought this one. I didn’t like him as a person or a character, but I could absolutely buy him. Just a point of personal privilege there, back to this book.

This collection of characters are the greatest conglomeration of self-centered, self-pitying, self-deceived (often), self-justifying, and miserable people I can imagine. And everything they do (well, 99% of the things they do, anyway) make their lives worse (and half of that other 1% is ruined almost immediately). On page 508, I jotted down in my notes, “Please, someone, stop this book — just put these people out of their misery! Mine, too!”

These people are so miserable, so self-pitying that I laughed out loud when I read Marie thinking, “Hope . . . there was more of that in her veins than blood.” Really? I couldn’t believe that for a second. About 200 pages later, we read, “She was so very, very tired. All this, she thought, biting her lip, all this because once, a long time ago, she had made a fatal mistake. She had fallen in love too young with the wrong man. Imagine, it was as simple as that and now she would never catch up. She would never be happy.” That I could believe. That’s one of the most honest sentences in the book.

Each male character (I think without exception — two children, are probably exempt) is able to talk a good game, able to spin a tale about something to make the people around him believe in him — and typically even fools himself. It happens at least once for every character — each time I disliked them more and more for it.

The main plot centers around Marie falling for Omar’s line and risking everything while underwriting a pyramid scheme that he’s peddling (as does a whole lot of the town), while alienating her two older children along the way. Her youngest knows better than the others suspect how terrible Omar is, but he suppresses that information and knowledge so his mother can hopefully be happy. There are crimes not associated with Omar, people dying, people suffering, people trying (and generally failing) to escape their pasts and improve their life. There are two characters out of this that might succeed in improving their lot in life, but we’re not given enough information to know for sure — a couple of others that seem to have turned a corner, but if the 700 previous pages are any indication these latter characters are 5 pages away from running back around that corner the other way.

So why did Entertainment Weekly put this one on their list for Vermont? I’m only guessing here — there aren’t that many novels set in the Green Mountain State. There was nothing distinctly Vermont about this book, as far as I could tell. It was Anytown, USA — there was a lake nearby, a university not too far away (but far enough), a Roman Catholic Church in town (maybe a Protestant one, too — but I’m not sure), one drive in, and a few small towns within an hour or two by car. That’s really all we learn about the geography. The state name is invoked a few times, but otherwise, it could literally be anywhere — like The Simpsons‘ Springfield. I learned nothing about that state, its people, or anything beyond another lesson in endurance in the face of overwhelming tedium.

Plot(s), character, setting — this book failed on all three. It was well-written, I guess, but there was nothing special about even that. I really have nothing positive to say about this one, if you haven’t noticed.

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1 Star

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Murder Boy by Bryon Quertermous

Murder BoyMurder Boy

by Bryon Quertermous
Series: Dominick Price, #1

Kindle Edition, 256 pg.

Polis Books, 2015

Read: July 11 – 14, 2015File this one under “There’s no accounting for taste.” And by that, I mean mine. By all accounts, this is one that should’ve appealed to me. The premise promises something like The Wonder Boys meets Fargo and Koryta’s endorsement (among others) makes it seem like that promise is fulfilled.

But nope. Just didn’t do anything for me at all. Didn’t find it funny. Didn’t buy any of the characters. I wanted the protagonist/narrator to get smacked around and dumped in the trunk of the car for everything after chapter 4 (and I wouldn’t have been incredibly concerned with the state of his health while in the trunk). Really, nothing about it (apart from the premise) appealed to me.

Quertermous mingles in some thoughts (maybe insights?) about narrative — both what we read and what we construct for ourselves. There’s actually a lot of metanarrative fodder for thought sprinkled throughout. And if I liked this book — even a little — I think I’d have found it insightful and entertaining. But as things were, it just came across as pretentious and annoying.

I might — might — give this another shot when the sequel comes out. Or I just might try the sequel, to see if it was my mood, the kind of books I’m reading at the moment, or something else that shows my problem with the book was internal. But right now? Just humbug.

—–

1 Star

Dusted Off: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

How It All BeganHow It All Began by Penelope Lively
Hardcover, 240 pg.
Viking Adult, 2012
Read: May 2-3, 2012

Humbug. What a poorly-written, pretentious little thought-experiment disguised as a novel. In case you haven’t been beaten over the head with it in books, TV and film there’s this thing called Chaos Theory–usually explained by the Butterfly Effect; Lively starts off with one event and then examines how the butterfly of an elderly woman’s mugging effects the lives of 20 or so others.

As far as that goes…a decent setup. But we have to keep revisiting the conceit, every few chapters we have to have a recap that all of the things going on are because of this mugging. Over and over again. And about halfway through (minor spoiler), we get this big lecture about Chaos Theory. Juuuust in case we haven’t got it yet.

When she’s not browbeating us with that, Lively tells some okay stories. With the stress on “tells”, rarely, if ever, showing.

The best thing I can say is that at least Lively doesn’t interrupt really appealing characters in the middle of fun, compelling stories with this application of Chaos Theory.

—–

1 Star

Murder in the Ball Park by Robert Goldsborough

Murder in the Ball ParkMurder in the Ball Park

by Robert Goldsborough
Paperback, 228 pg.
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road, 2014
Read: Jan. 25, 2014

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 5 times? You’re writing Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin novels and I just can’t help myself. When I was on page 19, I actually put in my notes, “if this book wasn’t about Wolfe and Archie, I wouldn’t read another word.” But it was about them, so I read the whole thing.

There’s no attempt at all to mimic Stout, his voice, pacing, etc. And this is a good thing — if you can’t do it successfully, it just comes across as bad (a recent example in another medium is the Dan Harmon-less season 4 of Community). Goldsborough came close with Murder in E Minor, which is why it’ll always be the book least likely to get him pilloried by anyone. But here he doesn’t even try — this is someone using familiar characters in his own voice, and that’d fine. I figure it’s like when Sammy Hagar got to stop singing songs written for David Lee Roth and instead focus on songs written for him — same band, but it came across very differently. When I was able to think of this as a Goldsborough novel rather than a non-Stout, it was a better experience. Not good, really, but better.

You read series to spend time with characters you like/love. That’s a given — and even when someone other than their creator is doing the telling, you can still enjoy them (see: most TV and comic series). But when they really don’t seem like themselves, it’s really not that fun to hang out with them. And that’s the biggest problem here — another voice, I think I could handle. If that voice got the characters right. And Goldsborough falls flat here (flatter than ever before, I think)

The book starts off with Archie and Saul at a ball game, when an important looking fellow comes in and sits a few rows ahead of them. Archie doesn’t know who he is, so Saul dumps a whole bunch of information on the gentleman — a state senator of some repute. Here I called foul for the first of many times — Archie reads, what, two papers every morning? Or is it three? (I don’t care enough at this point to do the five minutes of research it’d take to verify this). He doesn’t need for Saul “The Expositor” Panzer to fill him in on all these details in an uncharacteristically verbose way. Just a shameful way to use Saul, anyway.

The middle hundred (give or take) pages were so hard to get through. Archie and Wolfe talk to the three main suspects as well as five people close to the case and Inspector Cramer. Each and every one of them gave the exact same list of suspects (obviously the suspects left themselves out) — in the same order of likelihood — and then each of them (including the suspects) gave nearly identical reasons why each suspect should and shouldn’t be considered. It was just painful, you could practically sing along with the characters by the end. “Second verse, same as the first.”

I don’t want to get into specifics here, but I was less than a quarter of the way through the book when I saw the hinge on which everything turned. It was so obvious, it was annoying. I don’t expect Goldsborough to be as good as Stout (rarefied company anyway), but someone who’s read as many mysteries as this guy seems to have should’ve been better at hiding the solution.

Lastly, the dialogue was simply atrocious.

After said VIP is killed, Archie tells Saul.

I don’t want to be here when Inspector Cramer or, heaven forbid, his dull-witted, stuttering underling, Lieutenant George Rowcliff, shows up. Each of them would try to pin this on me somehow

What’s wrong with this? Sure, Archie might say “Inspector Cramer” here, rather than simply “Cramer,” but I doubt it. But there’s no way he rambles on with full name and rank of Rowcliff — period. And that lumbering “dull-witted, stuttering underling”? Pfui. Saul knows Rowcliff. Archie might put that in his narration, but he’s not going to do that in dialogue with his old pal.

Later, when asking how Archie learned something, Lily says,

Your old friend and poker-playing adversary Lon Cohen, no doubt.

No. No. No. Lily’s lines should sing. The banter between she and Archie should have zip. Not this tin-eared nonsense.

I could go on, but I won’t. Just one other way that Goldsborough refuses to respect the characters that made this series what it is.

When I was about halfway done with this book, I posted this to Facebook, and I think it sums things up pretty well:
Next time a Robert Goldsborough book comes out, I need as many of you as possible to whack my nose w/a rolled-up newspaper and tell me, “no.”

Probably won’t do any good, but it’s still the humane thing to do.

—–

1 Star

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds

by Chuck Wendig
ebook, 264 pg.
Angry Robot, 2012
Read: Jan. 4-6, 2014

Over the last couple of years, I’ve really enjoyed — and learned a few things — from Chuck Wendig’s blog posts about writing, and have seen nothing but raves for this series from people and writers whose taste I respect and frequently agree with. But, when reading descriptions for Mockingbird it seem all that interesting to me. When the publisher was giving away e-copies last month, I figured I’d roll the dice and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

I should’ve stuck with my gut. This was not a book for me.

There are a lot of positives to Mockingbird. It’s told with imagination, humor, style, verve, panache and skill. Everything that Wendig’s blog tells you to do, he does. I don’t think there was a single dud sentence in the 264 pages, and there were several spectacular ones.

However…

Miriam Black’s power is fairly lame. Like Deanna Troi’s — it’s a neat parlor trick, but there’s not much use to be made of it.

As is the case 99% of the time a book doesn’t work for me, it ultimately comes down to the characters. I’ll put up with a lot for characters I like — and I don’t think I’m alone. I never cared about Miriam, Louis, or anyone. The villains were a little too villain-y for my taste — which, oddly, made them less threatening or interesting. If I don’t care about the characters, how can I care about what happens to them?

Lastly, there were some formatting troubles with the ePub. This isn’t damning or anything (or all that novel a problem) but when you’re not particularly enjoying a book, minor annoyances are less minor — almost feeling like a deliberate attempt to lessen the experience.

I do want to read more by Wendig, just not in this particular world.

—–

1 Star

Dusted Off: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park

by Jane Austen
Original Publication: 1814

This is my third foray into the works of Austen in my resolution to read her collected works this year, and it’s as disappointing as the first two–maybe more.

Once again, we have a collection of mostly empty-headed young women who fawn over largely unworthy men with healthy inheritances/incomes. There are two of these women who are capable to some thought, of being almost well-rounded, and they’re both in love with the same man (who, other than being utterly clueless about this fact for the entire novel is the only single guy worth bothering with). But there’s a twist this time–the protagonist doesn’t come from the same social class as everyone else, she’s been taken in and raised by her wealthier uncle. Hardly a Dickensian orphan, but still, not “worthy” of being in the company with these people.

Everyone else gets married and whatnot, leaving the triangle socially isolated until things finally come to the only just (and entirely predictable) conclusion for all involved, and they all lived happily ever after.

There was nothing real here–no real heart, no soul, just a bunch of cardboard cutouts going through the motions. Once again, I have to ask–how did Austen get the rep she has? I want to fall under her spell, I want to like her stuff, but I just can’t. Not yet anyway. Here’s hoping Emma‘s better.

—–

1 Star

Dusted Off: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium #2)The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

ugh. Really? Really world? This is the kind of thing you buy by the dozen? (or so it seems)

Okay…let’s go with the positives. This was better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The way that Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol was better than Police Academy: Mission to Moscow.

I like Lisabeth Salander — yeah, in many ways she’s cliched…but in enough ways she isn’t. The parts of the book that focused on her — not the investigation into her, but her, are far and away the best parts of the novel. Actually, if you cut away the rest of it — which is almost wholly dead weight, it’d be readable.

Now, the problems…well, some of them.

There are just too many characters. Well, there are too many names tied a quick description and some sort of quirk which supposed to equal characters. You could eliminate 30-50% of them and not do a darn thing to the plot.

There are plot lines that do nothing other than chew up space. The whole new job for Berger thing, for instance. Sure, this might come back to mean something in book 3, but I can’t see how.

There’s just too much wasted ink. We don’t need three paragraphs describing someone leaving the house to go get a hamburger and that’s it. Doesn’t advance the plot, doesn’t reveal anything about a character (other than to buttress the theory, based solely on this work, that all Swedes eat McDonald’s obsessively).

I had a laundry list of things to whine about–but who wants to read that (much less write it)? Let’s just leave it as, an over-written, over-long, dull book with one heckuva good, mostly wasted, character.