Reading List by Jennie for July through September
Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris
I haven’t read any of Charlaine Harris’ books except for the Sookie Stackhouse series, which I was devoted to. I’m not sure if it’s been a matter of fearing disappointment or if the concepts of her other series just haven’t grabbed me hard enough. I picked up the first book in the Midnight Texas trilogy recently when it appeared in the Daily Deals for 99 cents.
This book felt pretty different from the Sookie Stackhouse books; it took me a while to figure out why. I finally realized that I’m only used to Harris’ voice in the first person – as Sookie – and at first it didn’t work that well for me in Midnight Crossroad. There’s a sort of meandering, discursive quality to Harris’ voice that I think is better suited to a first person narrative. For one thing, it’s distinctive enough that it feels odd to have it used to for the various POVs we get in this book. But anyway…
Midnight, Texas, is a tiny town with some rather odd residents. There’s Manfred, a new arrival who works as a (mostly, but not entirely, fake) telephone psychic. There’s Bobo, who runs a pawn shop and employs Lemuel, who only comes out at night (dun dun DUN!). There’s Fiji, who lives and runs a shop across the road. Fiji doesn’t hide the fact that she’s a witch, but others don’t necessarily recognize her power (she’s not entirely aware of it herself). She does hide her crush on Bobo, but not very well; he’s the only one who seems unaware of it among the dozen or so residents of Midnight.
Bobo has his own problems; followers of his late white-supremacist grandfather are coming around, behaving menacingly and seeking a secret cache of weapons they suspect Bobo has. He also is heartbroken by the recent abrupt disappearance of the woman he lived with and loved, Aubrey.
There’s a lot going on in Midnight Crossroad and it took a while for me to warm up to the plot and characters. One thing I remember about the Sookie Stackhouse books is that the plots tended to get messy (though that didn’t necessarily affect my enjoyment very much). There’s a little of that in this book – the solution to the Aubrey mystery is sort of out of left field – but overall I thought the plot was a little more cohesive. It definitely feels like an introductory book. I do think I’ll pick up the second book in the series at some point. My grade for Midnight Crossroad is a B.
The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan
A friend got this biography for me as a gift when I was having a hard time a couple of months back (thank you!). I swear I’d seen it before but just not picked it up for some reason, though it’s right up my alley. It tells the almost unbelievable story of Thomas Francis Meagher, who was born in 1823 in Waterford, Ireland and died under mysterious circumstances in Montana territory in 1867. In between he was an Irish revolutionary, sentenced to death (a sentence commuted to transportation), a prisoner on Tasmania, an escapee to America, a star orator in New York and a Civil War general commanding Irish troops for the Union. The final act of his life saw Meagher trying to bring some sort of order to lawless Montana; for this he was apparently (probably?) murdered and his body tossed in the Missouri river (it was never found).
Meagher is a fascinating and sympathetic protagonist; growing up as he did in comfort in Waterford he could have picked an easier life (certainly his merchant father, later mayor of Waterford, would have liked it if his only son had been less of a revolutionary). His love for and devotion to Ireland comes through clearly in Egan’s prose, and one of the saddest aspects of the story is the fact that once he was banished he never again got to step on Ireland’s shores (and was never able to meet the son that his first wife gave birth to there). Meagher’s life had a number of twists and turns; it’s hard to believe he was only 43 when he died. I’m glad I read this and my grade for it is a B+.
Into Temptation by Emma Abbott
I think I got this for free through the Daily Deals; I wasn’t sure what to expect but the price was right. It ended up being an almost aggressively old-style contemporary romance in the style of the Harlequin Presents categories I occasionally read 20 years ago.
The heroine, Amber, works in accounting at a hotel on Guernsey (I liked the setting probably best of anything in the book). One night, while filling in for a colleague managing a conference at the hotel, she runs into the hero, Jack. Jack has already been established in a previous chapter as a quintessential HP-style hero: rich, ruthless, cold, ridiculously handsome and exotic (his mother was Spanish!). The two have literal sex on a beach. (The heroine has never done anything like this before! Though at least she isn’t an actual virgin; she gave it up to her cartoon-villain ex-fiance.) It’s only the next day that Amber realizes that Jack is 1) taking over the hotel she works for and 2) the son of a man whom her family blames for ruining the career of her father and sending him to an early grave.
Amber promptly quits, but Jack forces her to serve out her one-month notice, under threat of lawsuit (of course he does). What follows is a number of misunderstandings (mostly involving other women), more hot sex, and a truckload of ambivalence, on both sides. Jack is ambivalent because his mother died in front of him and he can never love blah blah blah; Amber has the aforementioned issue with Jack’s father (also, Jack is literally the worst, though that part seems to bother Amber less).
Anyway, I gave this a C, mostly because it was readable. And at least Guernsey was nice.
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg
I can’t remember where I came across this, but I know it was touted as being a psychological thriller. It was either implied, or I inferred, that it was in the Gillian Flynn/Paula Hawkins mold. It turns out it wasn’t, at all. It’s almost all “psychological” and very little “thriller.”
Clare is in Havana, attending a horror film festival that her husband Richard, a scholar on the subject of horror films, was supposed to attend. Alas, Richard was killed by a hit and run driver near their home in upstate New York five weeks previously. So when Clare sees Richard standing on a Havana street, she’s shocked and confused. She begins to follow “Richard” (or is it Richard?) around town, spying on him and musing about her past: her marriage, her childhood (she grew up in a rinky-dink tourist hotel in Florida that her parents managed) and her aged father’s Alzheimer’s.
I like to think I can handle ambiguity. I’ll admit I don’t always *like* it; there are certainly people who probably like it more than I do. But if I read the paragraph above and was told that The Third Hotel was sort of a dreamy meditation on grief and the nature of reality (which it is), I’d probably be quite intrigued. But I didn’t like it, at all. I didn’t like it in part because I was expecting something different (that’s my fault). I didn’t like it because the degree of ambiguity made the exercise in reading it feel pointless – *nothing* is ever made clear (sorry, that’s probably a spoiler). Is it Richard or is it not? Maybe Clare’s not even in Havana. Maybe Richard doesn’t actually exist? Or maybe he’s a ghost? Who knows.
The story didn’t need to be wrapped up in a tidy package – I could have handled some loose ends. But this book is nothing but loose ends. Further, it’s written in a style that felt self-consciously literary to me. That’s probably a very subjective judgment. Early on Clare describes being in a hotel room. She travels often for work, criss-crossing the Midwest as a rep for an elevator company (that job itself felt pretentious and literary to me – fraught with some symbolic significance I couldn’t quite grasp). In this particular room Clare opens the nightstand drawer and finds a fingernail: “Her first impulse was to pick up the nail and swallow it..” My reaction to that was 1) ew and 2) bullshit and 3) ew, again. I mean, it was one of those little details that might work for someone but just struck me as false. Clare struck me as false; a collection of traits rather than an actual person. Her marriage to Richard seemed filled with ennui, but it’s a literary ennui, with no particular cause and thus no apparent motivation for the characters to work on it. I initially gave The Third Hotel a C, figuring that my dislike of it was at least partly my fault. But even if that’s the case, I think I’m going with a D. It’s a more accurate reflection of my feelings towards the book.
The Brontes: Veins Running Fire by Derick Bingham
I was looking for some non-fiction to read and decided to learn more about everyone’s favorite English literary family. There are a number of biographies of the Bronte sisters out there; Juliet Barker’s seems to be the most prominent. I think I may have picked this one, instead, for two reasons 1) it was published fairly recently and 2) it was really cheap on Amazon.
For an overview of the life of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, I think this book was probably just okay. Not terrible, not great. It was however marred by two flaws that affected my enjoyment: 1) terrible, terrible copyediting – I highlighted dozens of typos but finally just gave up because there seemed to be too many to count and 2) religious proselytizing.
The latter took me a little while to notice – first there were references to Patrick Bronte’s religious views that didn’t seem entirely scholarly. I finally realized that the author was pretty religious and had approving views on the Bronte family’s Protestant devotion. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but it did. I know that biographers come from a particular perspective; they aren’t automatons. But I still expect a certain level of professional distance when the book is not advertised as coming from a religious perspective.
My grade for this was a C.
Happy Doomsday by David Sosnowski
I got this dystopian YA book from Amazon First Reads. Teenagers Dev, Lucy and Marcus seem to be almost the sole survivors of an event that kills everyone around them simultaneously. The event is never explained, though the reason the three survive is posited by Dev late in the book. As reasons for the end of humanity go, the vagueness was a little unsatisfying, but I suppose that the reasons for humanity’s end is often one of the less important parts of dystopian fiction, when you get right down to it.
Each of the three lives in a different area of the country, and while Lucy and Marcus meet mid-way through the book, they don’t encounter Dev until late in the story (though the prologue foreshadows the meeting). I had several problems with Happy Doomsday – a dearth of sympathetic characters (and it didn’t help that they all talked/thought in the same flip, snarky voice). Dev has Aspergers which is depicted as making him brutally indifferent to other people. Marcus had, in his previous life, been drawn into a plan to commit jihad and kill his classmates; this makes his assertion that he’s “empathetic” feel a little hollow. Lucy is sort of the least bad, but commits the morally reprehensible act of poking holes in Marcus’ condoms because she unilaterally decides that they need to repopulate humanity.
Pacing is a real problem in the book – a lot of nothing happens for a long while, and then late in the book when the characters are all together, big events are glided over in a paragraph.
The biggest issue I had was the animal abuse in the story. I know in a book about basically all of humanity dying it may seem precious to carp about animals suffering and dying, but yes, I’m one of Those People. Plus, at least the humans just drop dead in the blink of an eye, without apparent suffering. There are a number of incidents in Happy Doomsday involving animals suffering and dying and I just did not know why that had to be such a *focus* in the book. Most of these involve Dev; the first – which I never quite got over or forgave him for – involved him locking a dog in with his newly dead principal in the principal’s office. He apparently disliked the principal and…was amused by the idea that the guy’s corpse would be eaten? By the dog who would eventually starve to death, unable to escape? I kept expecting Dev to remember he’d left the dog locked up and go rescue it. No such luck. That was just the first of several unpleasant sequences with Dev and animals. It just felt unnecessary. There were other details about the apocalypse that were unpleasant – the decomposing bodies and hordes of rats. But those felt realistic whereas the focus on animals being hurt and dying felt like it was given a specific and unnecessary focus.
There was one last event late in the book that bothered me for several very spoilery reasons, and at that point I was *so* done with Happy Doomsday. Then it actually managed to surprisingly make a decent recovery with a semi-hopeful ending. It’s that alone that keeps it out of D territory; I’ll give it a C-.