Category Archives: Reading

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Reading The Paying Guests is like tpgwalking into Season 3 of Downton Abbey, minus whatever posh is left. Or… maybe it’s more like a first-person female view from within The Great Gatsby (again, minus the posh). It’s not exactly beach reading, despite all of the scandal it contains; it passes for literature – in fact, it’s arguably made of much higher quality writing than Gatsby.

Set in 1922 post-war London, the opening scenes denote threadbare respectability in the houshold of a young woman named Frances, who is keeping a house for her mother after the deaths of her father and both brothers. Funds are tight, bills are piling, and to make ends meet Frances decides that they should take in paying guests. She has the upstairs of their home converted into an apartment, with the only shared area to be the water closet.

On finding a suitable young couple (Len and Lilian Barber) to let out the upstairs apartment, mother and daughter attempt to establish the proper level of familiarity – in small instances, neither of them is quite certain what the appropriate level of distance is between them and the strangers in such close proximity to them. They all see one another in passing, they all hear one another through walls and ceilings. Inevitably, a friendship soon springs up between Frances and the young Lilian Barber, and their small intimacies soon lead to larger ones, resulting in some very elegantly written sensual scenes between the two of them. At one point in the book, Frances tells Lilian, “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”

There’s a lot of beauty admidst the squalor in this book, and I struggled – as I suspect readers are meant to – with balancing the moral aspects of Frances and Lilian’s affair. I have no qualms about same-sex coupling, but I do strongly dislike the dishonesty involved in their relationship. There are countless small deceits between Frances and her mother, Lilian and her husband, Lilian and Frances. After their first interlude, Lilian says “It didn’t seem strange, it didn’t seem wrong. I didn’t think of Len, [her husband] not for a moment. I know it’s wicked of me, but I didn’t. It doesn’t seem anything to do with him. It doesn’t seem anything to do with anyone but us, does it?”

Deceit may be the largest theme of the book, as it underlies every element of the plot throughout. The small deceits finally crescendo about halfway through the book and a tragic episode leaves Frances, detectives, and the reader trying to untangle them to reach the true meaning of it all.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to anyone able to tolerate a morally questionable protagonist for sake of probing deeper questions of meaning – or, for sake of a well-crafted story. I can’t say that I was left satisfied with the ending, but maybe you will be.

As always, all of the books I write about are purchased for my own gratification and I receive no compensation for my reviews. If you do decide to read The Paying Guests, I’d be thrilled if you would purchase it through my link as I will receive an infinitesimal commission if you do.

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Gone Girl

Do you ever leave books on your to-read list for so long that they make a movie out of it before you read the book? That’s what happened with Gone Girl. When I was scoping out movies to see, I saw the trailer:

I wanted to see the movie, so I had to hurry up and read the book.

Bottom line up front: the movie is better. I realize how that sounds. Bear with me, here.

First off, both are disappointing. I’d tell you why, but… spoilers. So here’s the gist, without the spoil.

Gillian Flynn is more of a TV/movie person than a book person. She refers to herself as a “movie geek with a journalism degree.” Her writing style is very tabloid readable, and clearly shaped by her time at Entertainment Weekly. (Check out this TV-style promo site.) She acknowledges that her characters are generally “difficult to like,” and she refers to Gone Girl as a “twisty, noirish thriller.”

There’s nothing wrong with her writing itself, but there is something drastically wrong with her content.

You probably already know the basis of the plot, but just in case, here’s a brief synopsis: Amy Dunne goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary, and her husband Nick is the primary suspect in her disappearance, not only because the husband is always a suspect, but because she left behind a journal detailing their ‘Amazing Amy’ relationship, her devotion to him, and finally her fear of him.

SPOILER ALERT: The first part of the book is Amy’s journal. The second part of the book is a first-person narrative from the POV of the agonized husband, worried about his wife, stunned that the general public seems to think that he has killed her, and then finally realizing the truth of the situation he is in. Finally, it shifts back to Amy herself… Yes, that’s right. Amy. The POV goes back to first person AMY. Who’s biding her time doing useful things like telling us “One should never marry a man who doesn’t own a decent set of scissors. That would be my advice. It leads to bad things.” Who’s framed her innocent husband for her murder to punish him for not understanding/fulfilling her enough (and for having an affair after she’s pushed him away), taken off with a wad of cash and an intent to kill herself only the better to frame him, gets robbed of her cash and calls up an obsessed but equally innocent ex-lover to help her out, and frames and kills him when she decides that she misses her husband and that “My greedy, stupid, irresponsible parents can finally pay back my trust fund. With interest,” so it’s time to go home. In the end of both versions of the story, her actions are rewarded – in the movie, her husband’s attorney finally tells him to thank her for the increase in business he’ll get when Lifetime picks up her story. In both accounts, she has managed a pregnancy with a frozen sperm sample he’d long forgotten about, and though he despises her, between the media attention and the soon-to-be-baby, he can’t leave. They’re back to being the perfect couple. Except… she’s completely psycho. In real life, he should have been able to prove her crimes and prosecute her, escape to seek treatment for the abuse she inflicted on him, and moved on happily in life with someone else if he so chose. This book is beyond an homage to dysfunction: it’s an endorsement of gender-specific abuse.

Why is the movie better than the book? Gillian Flynn’s ideas lend themselves better to film than print. And at the end of the day, it moves faster, so it’s less of a waste of time. I’m sure that the reason both book and movie are so popular is their shock value, but Gillian Flynn – talented author – has given wings to the “psycho bitch” phrase that angry men utter at women around the world. For that alone, I can’t like either book or movie regardless of their entertainment value.

“No one wants to think that they’ve raised anything but the perfect child.” – Gillian Flynn


Who is Danny Birt?

Excuse me while I fangirl for a minute. I was going through old blog drafts, and I ran across this one from February 7th, which is the first time I really actually hung out with this Danny Birt guy mentioned in the title of this post. I don’t actually really read fantasy novels (unless you count the year-long ordeal that was me suffering through Eragon), I’d never heard of “filking” (it’s not as dirty as it sounds), and I had just gone to my first even Fan convention: MarsCon. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a geek. I’m probably too cool to even be a proper nerd (I can’t hear you, Peanut Gallery). But I was bored, I knew people that were going, and the theme was Twisted Fairy Tales. If there’s any theme I can get down with, it’s that one. Into the Woods, anyone? 3

So a really nifty (kinda nerdy) guy (not Danny) asked me to go, and I went. (Ladies, he is one of the good ones, and I’d be happy to pass your info along to him if you’re in the market.)

There were all kinds of amazing costumes, including one young couple dressed as Jareth and Sarah from the Labyrinth. I got sorted into Ravenclaw. There was at least one Dalek. And there were lots and lots of writery workshops and panels to attend.

One of the panels featuring Elizabeth Brooks was somewhat interactive: a table full of writers had to rewrite fairy tales with audience-imposed elements or limitations. On a timer. All of the authors were talented, but one of them was very, very funny. His tale was the only one that was completely finished in the allotted time, and it was by far (in my opinion) the most entertaining. He rewrote Goldilocks to include a dragon. Immediately, I had the sense that he was a person that I should know. But I didn’t know him. So I went on about my business.

Then, I went to hear some music – and lo and behold, he was there, singing hysterically funny song parodies. And I thought, I should probably get to know this person (and possibly marry him and have his babies). Instead, I left without saying a word to him, knowing that he’d be returning to his home in another state after the convention was over. Three weeks later, I looked him up on Facebook and sent him a message letting him know I was ‘stalking’ him. Turns out, he hadn’t left the state, and was still staying in my city. I asked him if we could meet for lunch, and when we met he was completely oblivious of my interest and expressed curiosity as to why I’d wanted to see him. So I interviewed him. I mean, what else is a girl supposed to do?

Here’s the interview as it went:

Who is Danny Birt?

After spending a couple of hours with him, I’m absolutely positive that I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that he is funny.

He’s a writer:

RocBirt
A pianist, and a filker (which isn’t nearly as naughty as it sounds):
OtterDanny
And a licensed music therapist. And he’s a pretty interesting person.

Which authors have influenced you most?
Tolkein, Stephen Hawking, Terry Pratchett and Patrick Rothfuss – Name of the Wind was the best fanatasy book that I have read in the last decade. Once I was done reading it, I couldn’t write for a few days because I’ve never been so blown away… It was just just so fresh.

Influential musicians include:
Beethoven, Sigur Ros, Paul van Dyk.

Favorite movies:
Amadeus, Memoirs of a Geisha, Shawshank Redepmtion, Lilo & Stitch

What kind of socks are you wearing? Goldtoe
What color? black

If you seal anything in the world, what would you steal?
Nothing?

Okay if you could acquire anything you don’t already have?
I would acquire sufficient money that I would be able to take care of my needs and the needs of those close to me that I could move forward for the rest of my life. Or, I would steal a better answer to this question.

How do you feel about trench coats?
They can be very warm.

Do you have anything to add?
Look up the singer/songwriter ‘Power Salad’ and his song ‘My Cat is Afraid of the Vaccuum Cleaner’. And if you think you’re able to judge me correctly by this blog, you’re probably wrong.

What happened after the ‘interview’? “I want to write stuff with you,” I breathed. And so we collaboratively wrote a flash fic ending with the line, “The inexplicable smile on the corpse of Martini helped, too.” And then a lot of other things happened, and then more things after that, eventually resulting in him becoming my boyfriend and me even reading some fantasy stuff he wrote. I have pretty high hopes for a Happily Ever After with Danny Birt; after all, I found him in a Fairy Tale.
More after the jump:
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I’m completely biased, but I think everything Danny has ever written/played/created is brilliant and you should check it all out. You can (and should) find Danny’s newest book Beginning a Beginning here, his children’s/young adult book about a Dragon raised by a family of birds here, and his awesome new sylph story (my favorite) in Bad-Ass Faeries: It’s Elemental here. He also has five albums out, and you can check all of them out at The Scribbling Lion.

UPDATE: I realize that a lot of you also have interest in stalking Danny now (I’m a trendsetter like that) and the easiest way to stalk him is through his website. Easy-peasy.


Truth # 2 – The Devil

“A tale that begins with a beet must end with the devil,” Tom Robbins tells us in the beginning of Jitterbug Perfume (one of the best books ever written in the English language). “The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious. Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip… The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies… A tale that begins with a beet must end with the devil.”  

jitterbug_perfume

The truth is, I’ve kissed a few devils, and in my experience they do seem to share some similarities with beets.  A beet appears ordinary at a glance, but beneath the surface lies something that can stain anything it touches. Beets are often served in their own cloyingly sweet cooked syrup , and true to life the more popularly palatable way to serve them diminishes their beneficial qualities. Finally, beets have their selling points: apart from their obvious intensity, they’re also good for us on some levels

 

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While I could go on comparing the natures of various devils, it seems to me that there are greater evils that lurk in our relationships with beings of all kinds: comparison and expectation.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” we hear again and again. It’s true.  Comparison is closely related to expectation; we categorize both produce and people so that we know what we’re likely to see from them. Comparisons are useful in many ways – there’s a reason they happen – but they’re also very limiting. Expecting someone you’ve just met to behave like someone you’ve met before means that odds are good you’re not seeing them for who they really are: themselves.

My resolution for 2014 is to learn to see people as individuals instead of holding them up to others and trying to anticipate their next move. Less forest, more trees. The twin to this resolution is to decrease the amount of insight I expect others to have on any comparative basis (which is to say, pretty much all of it). This will free me up to believe in people a little bit more – to give people the benefit of the doubt – to hope for great things from them. Here’s to 2014.

wonderful

Random things from the interwebs:


Truth # 1 – There is No Time.

My mother always told me, “Life is what you make of it.” She’s right. Life is a blank canvas, waiting for you to paint, sketch, or write what you want on it; if you don’t, if you lead a passive consumer life, you’ll be about as satisfied as you are when you buy That Thing featured in all the commercials – which is to say, not very – and no one will take your complaints seriously. I used to live a life that my ex called “following the path of least resistance.” I allowed life to happen willy-nilly, and I adapted accordingly, because I had no real concept of what sort of life I wanted to create. I had time, I thought, to figure it out; I was willing to spend my twenties in a haze of passivity. That passivity ultimately ended up in motherhood, marriage, divorce, and lots of permanent scars and craters in the landscape of my life. Some of the happenings were fantastically good (My son is amazing, for instance.), but if I’d taken a more direct approach to decision-making, if I’d formulated some sort of a game plan for life, my life would definitely look much different than it does, now. It doesn’t, and that’s that – but I’d like to encourage you to take control of the time that you have, because you aren’t guaranteed a later. To quote a dear friend of mine that is not on the blogosphere:

 “your world, your life is yours to shape.  the universe hands you a hammer with which you can tap or you can bang on your life as you see fit to make it the way you want it.  but when you stop doing, when you wallow and mope and allow all the crud to bury your will, you flip that hammer around and offer the handle to whomever is out there.  and when that happens, more often than not, some bastard is going to grab hold and just whack away and dent you all to hell.  but even if you are lucky and some kind person takes possession, their well meaning taps inevitably also do damage — for they do not know what shape you really need and want your life to be.”

Even if you don’t know what you want, your best guess is better than anyone else’s- because it’s yours and this is your life. So, here’s the truth: you don’t have time to goof around with. Time is an illusion. You have this moment, right here- the present. You can spend it any way that you choose, but there’s no such thing as “buying time,” and this moment is irreplaceable.

“Hey man, d’you wanna buy a watch?”

“Hey no, man. Like, I’m not into time, man.”

– Tommy Chong (this is one of my earliest movie memories – thanks, Dad)

You’re better off making it up as you go along than allowing anyone else to do so. Even the most well-intentioned ‘other’ is going to have ulterior motives, good or not. During the above-mentioned passive haze of my 20s, I stumbled into a Barnes & Noble with one of my best girlfriends, and while I was scanning the shelves for Wayne Dyer books I saw this: pronoia The cover is attention-grabbing, so I picked it up and flipped it over. Imagine my surprise when I read this:

“I have seen the future of American literature and its name is Rob Brezsny.” – Tom Robbins

(Tom Robbins is my favorite author. His books are the Bible of my life, and I first encountered his work on the shelves of a thrift store- Jitterbug Perfume was the most satisfying novel I’d ever read, and it only cost me fifty cents.) I didn’t buy the book. I waited, but when I went back later it was gone. I scanned bookstore shelves for it constantly, over and over, everywhere I went. Finally, nearly two years later, I found the book in a different bookstore in a different city while shopping with the same friend. And I bought it then.

From the cover:

Human beings are selfish, small-minded, violence-prone savages, civilization is a blight on the earth, and the rising tide of chaos ensures that everything’s going to fall apart any day now. Right?

Wrong, says Rob Brezsny. In fact, evil is boring. Cynicism is stupid. Despair is lazy. The truth is that the universe is inherently friendly. Life is a sublime game created for our amusement and illumination, and it always gives us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it.

This book causes enlightened introspection, spontaneous optimism, and careful evaluation of your intentions – all in a flippant, artistic, playful manner. It’s the sort of book you might color in, underline, and write in the margins of. It is, in short, a guidebook to life. I still have two more entries inspired by this book, but for now, I’ll close with snippets of interest from the interwebs:

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Stay tuned for more Pronoia and an update on my word count for NaNoWriMo.


The Fault in Our Stars

“Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five… so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.”

John Green’s The Fault in our Stars  is the quintessential cancer book – and it’s written for young adults. The language is clear and concise, but infused with every bit of the depth of meaning that you’d expect in a book on the subject of life and death. And it’s one of the few books that I think will be even better as a movie.

The_Fault_in_Our_Stars

Hazel Grace Lancaster is relatable on paper. She’s not an insipid Bella-esque teen; she’s a quirky, cynical, real sort of girl that says things like “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer,” and, “A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy… well.” But on paper, she’s still paper. You have to fill her in with that girl you knew that had cancer, who wasn’t as this-or-that as Hazel is. On screen, Hazel will be free to finally be her own paradoxical person: both brave and scared, vulnerable and guarded, young and old at the same time. On paper, she won’t be a caricature of cancer.

The book is full of philosophical references, making it one of the smartest young adult novels I’ve seen on the market in a long time.

The best bits of the book are the soliloquizing, and being a fan of Tom Robbins I can certainly appreciate that. This book would have had more depth without the plot, as a simpler writing on the emotions and thoughts involved with cancer – however, without the love story, the masses wouldn’t have bought it. Well played, Mr. Green.

The most fascinating plot element was (at least for me) that of Peter Van Houten and his novel An Imperial Affliction. Hazel writes him, “…you got everything right in An Imperial Afflication. Or at least you got me right. Your book has a way of telling me what I’m feeling before I even feel it, and I’ve reread it dozens of times… Frankly, I’d read your grocery lists.”

Here’s what I didn’t love about it: I didn’t love the ending- and not for the reason you’d think. I anticipated more Peter van Houten and less John Green, I suppose. Que sera.

There is beauty in the simple choice of words that John Green uses; lofty words, simply profound meanings. Fun lines:
“Television is a passivity.”

“…the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.”

You can get your copy here.


It’s My Anniversary! Here’s a Giveaway!

Here’s the backstory: Today is the anniversary of the day I married my son’s father. I’d had the baby a couple of months previously, but marrying him was everyone’s idea of the “right thing to do” – so, on our lunch break (I’d just started working in his family’s company) we went to the courthouse and tied the knot, with the baby drooling on my grey work shirt. I’ve never regretted – and never will regret – my son, but I’ll always regret the marriage. Silver lining? Every second of your life, you’re making a choice. You’re choosing how to spend your time, and who you spend it with. I love Happily Ever Afters as much as the next girl- but staying in a bad situation doesn’t make it better.  Celebrate your every moment!

In celebration of making BETTER choices, I’d like to give you a gift: Love’s Enduring Bond (NOTE: This does NOT mean that I will be your soulmate for life. This is a book, people.) You can enter the giveaway here!

love's enduring bondThe blurb: A bloody conflict put them on opposite sides, but could not break their bonds of passion.

Elizabeth Warner fell in love with Justin Holt at their first meeting when Elizabeth’s father moved to the Shenandoah Valley to take up a small medical practice there. Justin taught her the joy and passion of love on their wedding night, but war intruded on their bond. When he rode away to war as a colonel of Confederate cavalry, she took their young son and moved back with her father, to nurse Union wounded at her surgeon-father’s hospital in Washington. She tried to put the war and her love of a rebel officer out of her mind until his battered body was carried into her surgical ward.

It’s historic fiction written by Jean C. Keating,a deceased Williamsburg, Virginia author that had diverse interests. She had degrees in mathematics, physics, and information systems; she was Virginia’s Outstanding Young Woman of 1970; she was an aerospace engineer for NASA; she was the head of research for Virginia’s Higher Education Council; she was an animal lover (she especially loved Papillons) – and she was a writer. A writer that was passionate about many things, and wrote this historic romance set during the War of Northern Aggression (For you Yankees, that’d be The Civil War). I never met Ms. Keating, but I wish I had. She lived a full life and maintained hope in Love’s Enduring Bond. Here’s to that.

Enter the giveaway here.

Check back to see who wins- and be sure to subscribe by email so that I have a way to contact you about getting the book to you!

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