Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Book #31: Emma: A Modern Retelling

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

For the past couple of months, I've been reading a lot about a new Jane Austen project that totally intrigues me (and yes, I know it totally horrifies some of my die-hard Austen friends). Well-known authors have been challenged with re-writing her classic books and bringing them into the modern age without losing their original feel and major storyline. 

Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the wildly popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, was tasked with bringing Emma into the 21st century. 

His Emma doesn't stray too far from Austen's - she's a spoiled and pampered daughter of a widower, a meddler in everyone's business, and in love with her "big brother"-type older friend without actually realizing it. Check, check, check.

This Emma is different only in that she's somewhat bi-curious about Harriet and she's a lazy fashion designer who doesn't see the need in working for a living.

I didn't love this novel, and I realized about halfway in that it wasn't because it was written poorly. In fact, I think it's a pretty faithful adaptation. The problem is, I think this version highlights the fact that I don't actually like Emma. She is, for want of a better word, a brat. She's Kim Kardashian dressed up as Keira Knightley, and look. We all know the difference.

I also get the feeling that she doesn't reeeeeeally love Mr. Knightley. She just doesn't want Mr. Knightley to love anyone else (Harriet) because she always gets her way.

I think the original novel is pretty much the same, but Austen paints Emma as a little more harmless and a tad more charming.

*And side note, knowing what we all know now about Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP personality, how perfect of a 90's casting choice was that?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Book #30: A Dark Dividing

A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne

I've read a lot of F.G. Cottam's books over the past couple of years (Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls were the best offerings), and while he's no Stephen King, he's pretty good at summoning a good scary story. This is the first book I've read by Sarah Rayne, and I actually Googled her to see if she was actually the pen-name for F.G. Cottam, or maybe the other way around. The writing is startlingly similar. 

This story time-hops from early Victorian England and the journal entries of a well-to-do unhappily married woman to the 1980s and an unhappily married woman to present time and an unhappily unmarried woman with a secret. (Well. All three women have secrets, but it would take me about twenty paragraphs to get into all that.)

I enjoyed this book, mainly because it contained my favorite ingredients for a horror story: a crumbling and abandoned Victorian mansion turned mental asylum, a seemingly sweet but unhinged villain, and creepy children. That's pretty much all I need to get lost in the narrative.

While the ending was sort of meh, I'm going to pick up a few more of her novels and give them a go. Who doesn't like escaping into a creepy novel every once in a while?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Book #29: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I tried to read an Anne Lamott book back when I was about 25 or, as I remember it now, young and stupid.

My thoughts on faith and God and all things Scriptural and Biblical and Christian were very structured and rigid and "this-is-how-it's-always-been-and-I-won't-ever-change-my-mind-about-ANYTHING"-ish, and Lamott's free and (sometimes) profanity-laced views on everything that had to do with the above-mentioned list horrified me. I remember putting the book down on my bedside table in disdain and calling a friend (because we didn't text as much back in 2005) and telling her that this book was a bunch of crap.

Like I said, I was young and stupid, and I thought I had it all figured out. If the past 11 years have taught me anything, it's that God doesn't conform to my list of rules. And my list of rules was seriously flawed. 

When I kept seeing this book pop up in my Amazon recommendation list, I was hesitant. Lamott and I had tried to be friends, but it hadn't worked before. But I decided to approach her writing one more time, and I'm so, so glad I did.

The sentences are gorgeous. There's really no other word for it. This book is about writing, and I can honestly say, you don't have to be a writer to love it. I found myself underlining and nodding and (yes, even me!) sometimes tearing up. 

My favorite passage:

“You don't want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath. You can't fill up when you're holding your breath. And writing is about filling up, filling up when you are empty, letting images and ideas and smells run down like water - just as writing is also about dealing with the emptiness.”

I wanted to share the book with people I love and maybe that I don't love as much as I should. I wanted people to understand it with me. I wanted people to understand me. I wanted to communicate that I've always felt this way, and "oh my goodness, haven't you, too?"

If you can find a book that makes you feel like that, then you've found a keeper. 

And honestly -- isn't there something so amazing about admitting that you've been wrong about something? It makes the joy of re-discovery that much sweeter.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Book #28: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon

Like all hot-blooded Americans, I am obsessed with all things "Downton Abbey." That show is magic, people. After I watch an episode, I walk around my house speaking in a British accent to my pets and I'm convinced I was meant to be English royalty. (Also, and this is a conversation for another time, but poor Lady Edith. I think she might be my favorite character. Girl can't catch a break.)

This book was written by the current Countess of Carnarvon Castle, where "Downton Abbey" is actually filmed, and is the backstory of the real-life family who lived there and on which the show is based. Much like the characters on the television drama, the real family had some out-of-the-ordinary experiences and interactions, and I dare say I liked Lady Almina much better than her counterpart, Lady Cora (because, come on. That faux accent makes me feel crazy after two or three minutes.). The descriptions of the castle were also enjoyable, because I feel like I've actually sat at that downstairs kitchen table a dozen times, so I could see it all in my mind.

What I really found fascinating was how reserved and restrained everyone appeared to be at that time, even when highly emotional events were swirling around them. I think we're all so used to the age of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and the "I'm going to tell you about every emotion I have at the exact moment I have it" mindset that we've forgotten how much it wasn't like that not even 100 years ago. While I think I would have struggled a bit with keeping every feeling bottled up in public, I found myself a little envious of the privacy of secrecy. Like I said, I'm pretty sure I was meant to be English royalty. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book #27: Mr. Mercedes

It's no secret that I love Stephen King, and I think some of his best works are the less popular ones (hello, Duma Key). This is the first novel I've read from him that is just a straight-up crime thriller, with no supernatural elements to further the plot. Of course, there are supernatural hallucinations, but no actual ghosts. I think.

This story is the first in a trilogy involving retired police detective Bill Hodges, a man haunted by his failure to solve the last big case of his career. Before his retirement, a masked man drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of people at a job fair, killing several, including a child. Hodges never found the killer, and as a result, spiraled into a suicidal depression. 

Just before he decides to end it all, he receives a letter from the killer, daring him to try and solve the case before he kills again. Fueled by rage, Hodges decides to go after the murderer, and things get tricky.

I enjoyed this book for a couple of reasons:

1. I can never figure out where King is going to go before he goes there. While he lets you know early on who the killer is, you're not sure why/how or what's about to happen with that information, and it's never as it seems.

2. King isn't afraid of killing off people you think are around for the long haul. There's always a tension with wondering who's about to get written out of the story, and it definitely keeps the pages turning.

and finally,

3. He's such a good writer, guys. There's no one out there like him, and I'll be so sad when he stops writing books. I hope he has a safe somewhere with about 80 unpublished manuscripts, so I can keep reading new releases until I'm dead. For real.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book #26: The Asylum

The Asylum by John Harwood

I read John Harwood's first book, The Ghost Writer, a few years ago, and I loved it. I mean, I loved it. I forced my mom to read it just so she could also share my obsession and also so we could discuss the maddeningly ambiguous and spooky ending. "What do you think that meant?!" I asked her. I talked about it to anyone who would listen. The book was full of everything I loved - maybe-ghosts, stories-within-stories, unsettling landscapes. I still think it's a fantastic book.

His second book, The Seance, wasn't as good. But it wasn't terrible. I was slightly disappointed, but more than ready to give his third offering, The Asylum, a try.

And oh, dear. This one...so many issues.

The plot is intriguing enough: a woman wakes up in a mental institution with no idea of how she arrived there, and is horrified to find that all of the staff of the hospital think she is a completely different woman.

So far, so good.

But then it just gets, for want of a better word, stupid. The dialogue gets muddy. The characters make obviously dumb (with glaringly deliberate foreshadowing-y flair) decisions. There are forced and uncomfortable lesbian double entendres. 

And the ending.

I have rarely read such a hurried and "oh, well - yeah, my deadline's coming up, so I'd better wrap up this story really quickly and who cares if nothing is really explained and oh yeah, I'll just suddenly kill off main characters because I don't know what to do with them now" conclusion of a story. I actually found myself double checking to see if the book was missing pages. 

So bad. I hope this doesn't mean that John Harwood is an only-one-good-book-in-him author, but I'm beginning to worry this is the case.

But if you're looking for a really great Gothic ghost story, I'd still recommend The Ghost Writer. And if you read that one, let's talk about it, because I'm still wondering about what actually happened at the end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Book #25: Mycroft Holmes

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

I love Sherlock Holmes. I love the original stories, the old movies, the new movies with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, and the new BBC Benedict Cumberbatch series, so it's no surprise that a book about Sherlock Holmes's brother, Mycroft, intrigued me.

But what really interested me was that this book was written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yep. That Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It turns out the guy is a man of diverse talents and interests, and has been a big Arthur Conan Doyle fan for years. 

Unfortunately, I think the only reason this book is gaining any traction is due to its authorship. 

It's not bad. It's just not great.

I appreciate the effort, but I found my mind wandering throughout the entire book -- the plot just wasn't interesting enough to hold my attention. Everything came across to me as severely edited, probably due to the co-authorship, and at times it felt like there were actually two disjointed writing styles colliding and falling apart. 

I'll stick to the OG Holmes, thanks very much.