Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2 Short, Strong Novels (and 2 New-to-me Narrators)

Here are a couple of novels that between them didn't take up eight full hours of listening. (Generally, adult fiction runs nine to sixteen hours or so, in audio form.) They each pack a heck of a punch, though, and will continue to rattle around in my brain for a good long time.

Justin Torres's debut We the Animals is delicious. He instantly sank me into the world of three half-white, half-Puerto Rican young brothers living in Brooklyn. Living? Tumbling, running, running away, tussling, tugging, fearing, diving headlong into life. They define themselves in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, as close siblings (I should know) do.

Our storyteller is seven when the book opens, and the baby of the family. His parents are babies, too - all three boys were born during Ma's teens, so her coming of age is refracted through the prism of their growth. Ma has issues born from the struggle to make an adult life while still a child herself, as does Pap. But though the parental struggles are visible, it's the relationship of the boys that drives the narrative.

It's that relationship that defines the narrator, as well, which makes the short final section the anchor it is. It has weight and heft, and it suddenly plunges down and stops the narrative's progression in its tracks, makes the whole thing revolve slowly round, but keeps it secured at the same time. The narrator's somewhat self-destructive coming out is the key moment where he is defined in opposition to his brothers, and his parents, but what none of them can see in the midst of the crisis is that being one of the three Animals is still by far the best and most important way that he defines himself.

It's super-powerful, and narrator Frankie J Alvarez (who is a new voice for me) tells it with aplomb. He captures the passion and immediacy of boyhood without being saccharine or sentimental, and knows just when to slow down so Torres's carefully strung words can speak distinctly, and when to let the rush of images and experiences build to a crescendo of feeling.

Julian Barnes is the 2011 Booker Prize winner for The Sense of an Ending, another brief but weighty novel. I've enjoyed a bit of Barnes over the years - especially when I was living in England, or in the recently returned, newlywed with a writing degree days. What I'm saying here is that Barnes's protagonist Tony has a vaguely pretentious intellectual friend Adrian, who is a type I recognize. Tony and his pals absorb Adrian into their group at school, allowing his musings on philosophy and history to help define their own interests. They all head off to university and separate lives, though Tony can't help circling back to thoughts about Adrian when Adrian takes up with his ex-girlfriend Veronica.

Cut to forty years later, and Veronica's mother leaves a bequest to Tony in her will. Tony's life had proceeded smoothly - a marriage, a career, a child, a divorce, a retirement - but Adrian's and Veronica's stories were not so unaffected. In dealing with the bequest, Tony is startled, stunned even, to find his memory of those youthful actions is false. His relationships with Adrian, with Veronica, with Veronica's family, and with his own family are all clamoring to be reexamined.

In many ways, Tony is in a second adolescence, hearkening back to the fascinations of his first. Not just sex, but friendship, the study of history, and self-definition. Barnes keeps it all circling the same drain, themes chasing each other's tails, so that the ending promised in the title is never quite attainable.

Richard Morant narrated this audiobook, and it was my first encounter with his work. He did a number of Barnes's books. He also, sadly, died last month. I enjoyed the pleasant, well-pitched tone of his narration, which was overall simple and unobtrusive.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cozy Mysteriousness with Lizzy and Darcy

As soon as I turned on the audiobook Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, I realized I'd hit a trifecta. Great writing (my first James novel - I'll be checking out all those Adam Dalgliesh  mysteries soon!), narrated by Landor (I just sink into her narration - one sentence and I'm transported to Regency England.), and set in the world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (I'm one of those Jane fans, prone to rereading everything she wrote, but especially P&P. Plus, obviously, constantly rewatching the BBC movie with Colin Firth.)

So it all began very well. Delightful visitations with beloved characters, a nice imagining of life a few years after Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, and tensions when Lydia and Wickham show up uninvited, leaving a body in the Pemberley woods in their wake. Wickham is quickly arrested for the murder, and poor Darcy must face heaps of unresolved feelings about the man while maintaining his distance - and his respectable position as magistrate and local VIP. I'm thoroughly impressed with James's structure and her obvious love of Austen, which allows her to create this story while keeping purist snobs like me from throwing up our arms in outrage.

Really, there's only one place right at the end when I felt James had mis-stepped with the whole "Pemberley, six years later" thing. (She had Lizzy and Darcy discuss something that I felt should surely have come up at some point in the previous years.) Otherwise - as a murder mystery, as a detective story, as a chance to see Mr. Bennet's life after his beloved second daughter moves away - this was a completely successful book for me.

And of course, Landor's narration was the icing on the cake. She gave great life to the narrative voice, and positively relished Lydia's hysterics, in particular. Her Jane was sweet and calm, her Elizabeth was patient and wry, and her local magistrate is no one I'd like to have to deal with on a regular basis.

All in all, yum, yum, and triple-yum. My favorite book of the year so far.

(I know it's only January. I've read / listened to thirty books. I'm allowed to declare a definitive favorite.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kindle-riffic Historical Romances

Mom gave me a Kindle for my birthday last month. (Thanks, Mom!) I've had great fun with the Kindle books available from my library (long may that last.) (I suppose most of you are not as invested in the whole publishers / e-books / digital rights brouhaha of late as I am.) Here are a few I've liked a lot, all historical romances.

The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon is the latest in her Lord John series. Lord John Grey is a secondary character in Gabaldon's popular Outlander series. He's a frequent foil to my beloved Jamie Fraser, but even in the main series, I always liked Lord John quite a lot. The Lord John books are more detective than romance, though John does generally find time to hook up with a guy or two (while thinking wistfully of Jamie - no wonder I find him so sympathetic.) In this story, he reluctantly drags Jamie along with him to Ireland so they can sort out a traitorous English army officer. This means we get a lot of Jamie POV as well as John POV, and a nice between-Outlander-books look at Jamie's life when he is imprisoned in England. In addition to a nicely twisty plot with adventure and characters I already love, the highlight of this book was just how often it made me laugh out loud. Lord John has a perfectly quick and wry sense of humor, which emerges most strongly when he's under fire (a fairly constant state with him, between the action and the need to hide his sexuality.) I'm always going to be impatient for more Outlander from Gabaldon, but I'll happily take a Lord John tale to tide me over while I wait.

Cecilia Grant is going straight to my 'be impatient for more by her' list after her debut, A Lady Awakened. Smooth writing, unusual characters, and avoidance of cliches combined to impress and entertain me. Martha is newly widowed and, without an heir, her brother-in-law will kick her to the curb. That's not so bad - she has siblings who will take her in - but stories from the neighbors and servants about the brother-in-law build him into a picture of evil and imminent danger to those she cares about and feels responsible for. Luckily, a handsome stranger has just moved into the neighborhood (okay, so there are some cliches) and he's a rake! A rake without money! So Martha buys a month of stud service from him, in hopes of conceiving a son she can pass off as her dead husband's. Meanwhile, Theo has to curtail his wastrel ways to impress his father and earn his allowance. And he's very intrigued by Martha. However, just when you'd expect her to Discover Untold Joys between the sheets, and him to reform thanks to the Love of a Good Woman, Grant throws the brakes. Martha and Theo instead embark on a far more believable and engrossing journey. Yes, of course, in the end they are happily ever. It is all the more satisfying, though, because in finding happiness with each other they each first find a way to happiness with themselves.

Beverly Jenkins's Captured is the first I've read by her, and I was intrigued by the new worlds she explores. Specifically, the New World - America, and not just Boston and New York. Her main character, Clare, is a slave, and is captured by the pirate Dominic, who takes her to his Caribbean island of freedmen, and hopes to keep her there. However, Clare's children are still enslaved up in Georgia. So despite her growing love for Dom - and his for her - she refuses to stay in paradise with him. Dominic is another rake who has to mend his ways to become a one-woman man, and there's some guff with his white half-brother and a slaver who is out to get him, but Clare is enchanting and worth all the trouble he and his loyal men must take to rescue the kids and ensure her happiness. Now, the writing in this was very clunky at the start, and never entirely effortless, but Jenkins still created a believable and intriguing world and characters worth cheering for. And as I said, the change of venue from London ballrooms was a lot of fun for fans of historical romance.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gettin' Contemporary with the Romance

(Yeah, I don't know what that means. But, hey, it could sound raunchy, if you tried.)

So, I've discovered something about myself as a writer. To wit: if I want to actually do any writing, I have to not read anything by Kristan Higgins. She makes me throw in the towel. Her books are funny, and fun without being zany, and sweet. Her characters are real, and smart, and deserving of love. She makes me cry. A lot. So whenever I finish one of her romances, I sink into a depressive state, because why bother writing when she already has it under control? Foolishly, though, I read Until There Was You this week. Many tissues - many, many tissues - later, and I am happy to recommend anything by Higgins. At least I can rest easy knowing I only have one more of her novels to pick up before I've devoured everything she's ever published. That'll be a relief; I'll pencil in drafting the rest of my novel for a couple of weeks after I've finished that. (Kristan Higgins, if you're reading this, please don't publish anything new for a few months. Thanks.)

Another who makes me giggle is Jill Shalvis - I read my first (and second) by her this month, and anticipate ending 2012 with her name prominent on my Books Read spreadsheet. Based on The Trouble with Paradise and Instant Attraction, Shalvis makes frequent use of the zany / escapist fantasy tropes so common in romance novels. So, sure, I suspend disbelief a little to imagine being a cashier suddenly on a cruise in the South Pacific, surrounded by gorgeous, rich men. But if the dark brooding doctor with the French accent wants to irritate me and rile me up, I'll know that we're destined to be together, so that's nice. Shalvis has a very crisp writing style, sharp and light at the same time, and while hardly creditable, her characters are still believable and I enjoy their journeys to happily ever after moments.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley isn't strictly contemporary, what with the time travel and all, but much of it is set in modern Cornwall (a region I've encountered fictionally more and more lately. Cornwall is the new New England, I suppose.) I simply gobbled up Kearsley's first novel, The Winter Sea, and was hoping this would be as enchanting. It's not, quite, though it has many of the same elements: a woman searching for a place of her own, a man out of time, Jacobite plotters, and deft handling of the modern woman who finds herself in another century, I can almost hear Kearsley saying, "Why would this woman who suddenly time jumps back and forth NOT do X, Y, and Z when she was back in her own century?" and then creating a protagonist who applies logic to her freaky confusing situation. It's refreshing. (Yes, there are that many books with time travel, and yes, the modern people going back do show a surprising reluctance to Google about it.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Resolved: In 11 months I'll send holiday cards.

Happy 2012!
Despite being a family blessed with a passel of delightful friends and family whom we love dearly, we not only didn't send out holiday cards in 2011, we also didn't even send our usual holiday email. (We did make the usual donation in lieu of cards & postage, this year to my favorite library ever.) (What do you mean self-serving? Pshaw.)

So here's a picture of my family playing at being Typically American, sitting on the front porch on Thanksgiving 2011. Note: not our porch. Imagine it is accompanied by a charming letter sharing my thoughts about the year that has just ended, a pithy observation or two about the passage of time and aging of our children (D is 16! K turns 12 today!), and, of course, our warmest wishes for all of you. We do hope you have - oh, wait, had - a great holiday season, and that 2012 is a fun, fun year full of many good books and good times and a good kiss or two.

Also, here's a spreadsheet of the 301 books I read in 2011, which had nothing to do with my failure to compose a holiday email. I could totally have done that while listening to an audiobook.

Thanks to those of you who've said such kind things about this blog, which has been going for a year now. And to those of you who read it without comment, and to those of you who ignore it but at least don't make fun of me for writing it. You're all the best.