Book: Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

arsonistsguidetonewenglandTitle: An Arsonists’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
Author: Brock Clarke
Genre: Adult Fiction
Length: 303 pgs.

Summary: Sam Pulsifer, the son of two English teachers, bumbles. He realizes this while in jail for an arson conviction (which killed two people) which no one believes was a complete accident. Finally released from jail, Sam attempts to blend into mainstream life again, only to find there are just certain things you can’t live down…. burning down Emily Dickinson’s house as a teenage, for one. Years go by and Sam’s father shows him a collection of letters, all from people who want Sam to burn down the houses of other famous American authors for their own reasons. When these houses start to catch fire mysteriously, Sam’s the most likely culprit, and it’s up to him to prove otherwise.

Excerpts:

pg 82 – Because isn’t this what work is good for? Not so much a way to make your money, but a way you can feel normal even (especially) when you know you are not?

pg 89 – Because this is another thing your average American man in crisis does: he tries to go home, forgetting, momentarily, that he is the reason he left home in the first place, that the home is not his anymore, and that the crisis is him.

pg 155 – She reached over and gently put her hand on his yellow neck and left it there; he shivered noticeably, as though her touch were the best kind of ice.

Why should you read this book?
This book, I read somewhere, was supposed to be a dark comedy about a man who “bumbles.” Well, I agree that the narrator bumbles, he’s self-destructive for no discernable reason, which I find unfuriating and eventually boring, rather than funny. When I read, I tend to read for escapist reasons, or to see a new perspective, or to learn something about humanity (yes, even in romance…). This book only told me that people don’t change, they are selfish and self-descructive, and it’s better for everyone that we learn this as soon as possible.

As such, it’s a little hard for me to think anything other than the fact that Clarke is self-indulgent. While this book is well-written, I think it’s safe to say I’m not the target demographic. If you read it, let me know what you thought because I was all set to love this book and I hate disappointment.

Book: Neverwhere

Title:Neverwhere
Author:Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction
Length:370 pgs.

Summary: Stuck in a relationship and job where he is a whipping boy, Richard Mayhew breaks free of his daily not-caring ritual when a bloodied girl dressed in rags literally drops at his feet. By helping her, he loses track of his entire existence (literally), and must embark on a journey through “this city of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels, if he is ever to return to the London he knew.”

Excerpts:
pg 7 – There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vendemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.

pg 49 – To say that Richard Mayhew was not very good at heights would be perfectly accurate, but it would fail to give the full picture. Richard hated clifftops, and high buildings: somewhere not far inside him was the fear–the stark, utter, silently screaming terror–that if he got too close to the edge, then something would take over and he would find himself walking to the edge of a clifftop and stepping off into space. It was as if he could not entirely trust himself, and that scared Richard more than the simple fear of falling ever could. So he called it vertigo, and hated it and himself, and kept away from high places.

pg 93 – Varney looked like a bull might look, if the bull were to be shaved, dehorned, covered in tattoos, and suffered from complete dental breakdown. Also, he snored.

Why should you read this book?
I love Neil Gaiman. This is the second book I’ve read by him (Stardust was the other). I saw the movie MirrorMask and loved it. Gaiman’s tone is clever and funny; when you read his books you feel like he is sitting there telling you a story, rather than you reading a book (especially so with Stardust, where the characters are more archetypal). His descriptions are precise, accurate, and oftentimes hilarious because he doesn’t give any of his characters a break; see my excerpts above for an example.

If you like Doctor Who or Monty Python, this is a book for you. If you write fiction that takes any hint whatsoever from fairy tales, mythology, or legends, Gaiman is an excellent example to read to get a feel for what other writers are doing. (Another good example would be Marquez, but I’ll save that for when I review Of Love and Other Demons.) Gaiman, to me, is what I imagine the Grimm Brothers were to their contemporaries. All three men take inspiration from life, make the most mundane or horrible facts fantastical, and demand in the nicest way possible that you get something out of the story by the end. I highly suggest reading the author note at the end to really drive this point home.

Book: The Deception of the Emerald Ring

Title: The Deception of the Emerald Ring
Author: Lauren Willig
Genre: Historical Fiction, Chick Lit
Length: 387 pgs

Summary: Modern day – Eloise Kelly, like any good graduate student, is neck-deep in research for her dissertation about the Pink Carnation, attempting to prove the English spy existed. 1803 England – Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, an English operative in league with the Pink Carnation, is ordered to Ireland to prevent an Irish rebellion and catch the Black Tulip the same night he means to elope with the beautiful Mary Alsworthy. When the carriage door opens, however, it’s not Mary that steps out but her sensible sister Letty determined to stop the happy couple. The ensuing scandal forces Letty to marry Geoffrey, and when he leaves her on their wedding night for Ireland, she’s decided enough is enough and follows him, unaware she is about to stumble into the world of espionage, and even romance.

Excerpts:
pg 2 – One day. It had only been one day by the calendar, two years in terms of agonized phone staring, and about half an hour in boy time. It is a truth universally acknowledged that time moves differently for men. There was, I reminded myself, no reason why Englishmen should differ from their American counterparts in this regard.

pg 100 – There’s nothing so attractive as a blank slate. Take one attractive man, slap on a thick coat of daydream, and, voila, the perfect man. With absolutely no resemblance to reality.

pg 310 – He looked down into her flushed face, framed with its tangle of hair that alternated between copper and gold in the candlelight, and knew that no number of compliments would convince her. With her sturdy common sense, she would write them off as pure flummery. To a certain extent, she would be right. She would never be a beauty by the accepted standards. Pretty, yes. Even lovely. But she lacked the stateliness and symmetry society demanded of its chosen goddesses. …One might admire a well-carved statue, but it would be deuced uncomfortable to cuddle up with at night.

Why should you read this book?
This is my favorite book out of the Pink Carnation series, perhaps because the historical heroine, Letty, isn’t a madcap adventurer like Amy, or a self-indulgent younger sister of a great English operative… she’s a nobody, a younger sister that no one thinks of despite the fact that she makes sure everything is good for everyone else. Finally, we get to see a little about what other people think of this Pink Carnation character, who have no connection with the operative. This romance, despite its hasty beginning, is more organic to me, much more believable, because it seems the characters are actually meant for one another. There are obvious clues that let you think this, whereas the other books…well, the first one was “lust first, love after,” and the second was “childhood friends turned lovers.”

As always, an entertaining series, well-written, a good amount of history and other allusions thrown in, something great if you want a bit of fluff in-between your heavier reading. I look forward to reading the next book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. Writers should read this book for a believable burgeoning romance between previously unknown persons.

Book: The Masque of the Black Tulip

Title: The Masque of the Black Tulip
Author: Lauren Willig
Genre: Regency Romance
Length: 406 pgs

Summary: Eloise Kelly, our favorite history graduate student, continues in her determined quest to unmask the Pink Carnation, an English operative during the Napoleonic Wars that some don’t think existed. This time, she’s accompanying Colin Selwick to his ancestral home to read the archives in his family library for more information on the Pink Carnation, and in her research reads about Henrietta Selwick’s romance, which unmasks the infamous Black Tulip, a French assassin!

Excerpts:
pg 121 – We nodded at each other in complete historical complicity. His hazel eyes caught mine. That look was an entire conversation in itself, one of those odd moments of unspoken communication when you know beyond a doubt that you’re on the exact same page.

pg 214 – A human! Addressing me! I could have hugged her. There’s nothing more demoralizing than standing alone at a party–unless it’s tagging along after someone who palpably doesn’t want you there. I’d be damned if I was going to trail after Joan and Colin to the drinks table. If he wanted to extricate himself, he could bloody well do it himself.
He didn’t seem to be trying all that hard.

pg 257 – It wasn’t that the silence was uncomfortable. Quite the contrary. It was the peaceful sort of silence that attends long acquaintance, the comfort that comes of knowing you don’t need to say anything at all. And that very lack of discomfort made me profoundly uncomfortable.

I pinned down that thought, and followed it, writhing and slippery, to its source. It was the sham of instant coupledom. That was the problem. … It’s something that anyone who’s been single for a time will recognize, the pretense of intimacy that comes of being the only two singles at a couple-y dinner party, or, in this case, sharing a house for a weekend. It’s an intensely seductive illusion–but only an illusion.

Why should you read this book?
So this is the sequel to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, and as I found that book a fun, easy, amusing read, I thought I’d give this a chance. At times insightful, and at times a cringe to read (adverbs are a pet-peeve of mine, as are onomatopoeias), I liked the romance of this book better than its prequel, and liked the actual writing of it less. Something about how the modern characters kept quoting things to one another… I know I do that, and a history graduate student would probably do that, but it got a little heavy-handed. Same with the allusions to mythology in order to explain how the characters felt around one another. There were times where I felt we got a little too much of the history student (Willig is currently working on a PhD in history), and not enough of the novelist. The fight around the climax had me rolling my eyes, but the chase scene had me smiling in approval. Still a good read for an afternoon, despite my little complaints. It’s always hard to make the second as good as the first, so writers, read this series to look out for sophomore pitfalls.

Book: The Rules of Gentility

Title: The Rules of Gentility
Author: Janet Mullany
Genre: Regency Romance
Length: 268 pgs

Summary: Miss Philomena Wellesly-Clegg is a young woman who knows her mind and operates by lists: she has a list of bonnet supplies and a list of eligible bachelors to start her day, and neither list includes Inigo Linsley, the younger brother of her best-friend’s husband. But Inigo is handsome, scandalous, and for some reason, very willing to help her out of a sudden and unwanted proposal, so perhaps she ought to give him a chance?

Excerpts:
Couldn’t find any that I really liked/that stood out for me.

Why should you read this book?
This book is, as it says on the back cover, a funny combination of Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary… which is weird since the latter is merely a modern retelling/spin of the former. Told in first person from Philomena and Inigo’s perspectives, it is amusing and frothy; a great book to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It does not take itself seriously in the least. After all, the heroine is proposed to in the water closet. Twice. I’m not sure if writers would want to emulate this book, however, because it is so very frothy with almost nothing to make you want to read it again. From what I understand, however, this is a departure from Mullany’s typical writing style so perhaps I shouldn’t judge too fast. I do know that based on this sample, I’m not terribly inclined to read anything else by her, despite my enjoying it.

So, read this book to know what not to do: don’t make disposable characters, or an entirely goofy cast of characters, or a plot built on the assumption your audience read Pride and Prejudice. Do read this book for an example of comedic writing. For those of you thinking to self-publish your work, this is an excellent example of a well-thought cover, as it is the original reason why I picked up the book in the first place. Always remember, marketing is so important!

Book: Wildford’s Daughter

Title: Wildford’s Daughter
Author: Alexandra Manners
Genre: Regency Romance
Length: 257 pgs

Summary: Emma Wildford, seeing how her society-addled mother ruined her parents’ marriage, decided to live with her practical-thinking father when her family split apart. But now that Emma is interested in marriage, she finds her father jealous of the idea. Both the sensible Captain Ringan and the opportunistic Mr Critchley show interest in Emma, confusing her, and so she turns to her friend Mrs Fry. With Mrs Fry’s help, Emma looks past the immediate pleasures the Regency period to visit the miserable female inmates of Newgate Prison, showing her just how lucky she is, and who she really has feelings for.

Excerpts:
pg 92 – Her eyes, accustomed to the gloom, saw the white scar. He spoke so well that he must once have been a gentleman. What was he now?
“I’m a ruffian, as you well know,” Ringan said. “You are so delightfully open, Miss Emma. Your eyes mirror your thoughts.”
“Father says I’m too much so for my own good.”

pg 137 – Emma let herself into the house and fastened the bolt. He had not moved. She leaned against the glossy panel and listened. There was still no sound of footsteps on the gravel. Something touched the door as though he had slid a hand or arm across it. Her pulse quickened. She wished he would go away. It was altogether too disturbing to know that he lingered. But it was Emma who went first.

Why should you read this book?
I actually found this book in my library while looking for Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Marquez’s book was out, for the curious, so I picked up this one). I’ve never read a book by Manners before, but I really enjoyed this. Some characters are flat, but the majority are flush, amusing, and heartening to read. The romance(s) are all interesting, and have a wonderful quality of reality. Manners does little to hide the underside of the Regency, which I love, because it’s different from the typical comedy of manners (no pun intended) we usually see in Regency Romance. A lot of themes are tackled in this book: paternal piety, loyalty, love, murder, prisons, etc; altogether, they make an entertaining and thoughtful read that made me feel better for reading it, which is rare these days.

Book: The Time-Traveler’s Wife

Title: The Time-Traveler’s Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Fiction, Science-Fiction
Length: 518 pgs

Summary: This is the story of Clare and Henry. Henry time-travels, but not because he wants to, and he has no control of when or where he may end up, or how long he will be there. Clare, like the rest of us, lives each day, in and out, with none of the hiccups that Henry suffers from, and with the task of waiting for Henry to come back.

Excerpts:
pg 19 – Henry: I draw her to me. We kiss. It’s a very…compatible kiss, a kiss born of long association, and I wonder just exactly what we’ve been doing in this meadow of Clare’s, but I push the thought away.

pg 25 – Henry: It would fill me with a feeling, a feeling I later tried to duplicate with alcohol and finally found again with Clare, a feeling of unity, oblivion, mindlessness in the best sense of the word.

pg 104 – Henry: When Clare draws she looks as though the world has fallen away, leaving only her and the object of her scrutiny. This is why I love to be drawn by Clare: when she looks at me with that kind of attention, I feel that I am everything to her.

pg 274 – Clare: The compelling thing about making art–or making anything, I suppose–is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there , a thing, a substance in a world of substances. Circe, Numbug, Artemis, Athena, all the old sorceresses: they must have known the feeling as they transformed mere men into fabulous creatures, stole the secrets of the magicians, disposed armies: ah, look, there it is, the new thing.

Why should you read this book?
This book has been on my To Be Read list since I first heard about it early last year. This book is tragic. And beautiful. For once, a story told from two perspectives where it was the right choice to make. I don’t even know how to talk about this book, really, seeing how I just finished it.

If you like the tv series Dr Who, you’re going to like this book. (Maybe not the Dr Who/Rose-shippers, a la Doomsday episode.) If you like the movie versions of The Time Machine, you might like this book, but let me tell you, they are not a quarter as gritty and heartbreaking as this book is, and not a quarter as determined as the characters are to be happy in the here and now, never taking anything for granted.

Writers, read this book for an entirely new take on the old story of time-travel, second-chances, and waiting to find The One, for the absolute organic and painful quality of their lives, for a devoted love story, and for a great example of contemporary fiction. This book is what I’m sure Emerson would call a “creative read,” because it demands so much from you, the Reader. If you need a book to completely engross you (and if you don’t mind crude language or sometime-explicit scenes), this may be the book for you.

Book: Evening

Title: Evening
Author: Susan Minot
Genre: Fiction
Length: 264 pgs

Summary: Ann Grant Lord is dying. As she lays in bed drifting in and out of consciousness, memories of a long-forgotten love affair are triggered by the smell of a balsam pillow.

Excerpts:
pg 12 – Bertie frankly found her a little distant and cold. Dr Baker found [all women] mysterious to a point and Ann Lord had her own brand of mystery. She always looked well turned out and was a little cool ten she would surprise you with a little jolt of something witty and inviting. It was nearly flirtation and challanged something in him. Of course he did not relate that to his wife. He knew that much about women.

pg 14 – No doubt at the time they affected her, stirred some reaction, irritated or pleased her, but now most of them gave off neither heat nor cold and she watched them drop into the gaping dark hole of meaningless things she had nto forgotten, things one level up from the far vaster place where lay all the unremembered things.

pg 179 – Hope is better than mistery, he said. Or despair.
Hope belongs in the same box as despair.
Hope is not so bad, he said.
At least despair has truth in it.
You’re in a dark mood today.

pg 241 – Later in life Ann would learn that when certain men made decisions they would stick to them no matter how much it might torture them afterwards they would stick to their decision. Men, she learned, would rather suffer than change their minds or their habits. They could develop elaborate systems for containing pain, sometimes so successful they would remain completely unaware of the vastness of the pain they posessed.

Why should you read this book?
The text has a certain poetry to it, once you get used to its peculiarity. For instance: there are no double-quote marks denoting speech. My third excerpt above is an example of every conversation in the book. That’s one of the more straight-forward conversations. The entire book is a sort of rambling narration, disjointed in its timeline and sometimes in its sentence structure. Makes for frustrating reading if you don’t have the patience to work through it. An interesting idea, with an interesting execution, I can’t decide if I actually liked this book. As the narration is hazy, seen through the drugged mind of a cancer patient, the reader has a distinct level of abstraction so that no real connection is ever made with the characters or, dare I say it, plot.

Book: Never Let Me Go

never_let_me_golargeTitle: Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pgs

Summary: Kathy grew up in the sheltered, English countryside at the Hailsham boarding school, where the students were raised to believe they were special. Only in her teens does Hailsham reveal how special the students are. Kathy’s narrative slowly reveals from hindsight how a simple deception defines her life.

Excerpts:
pg 195 – But I didn’t say or do anything. It was partly, I suppose, that I was so floored by the fact that Ruth would come out with such a trick. I remember a huge tiredness coming over me, a kind of lethargy in the face of the tangled mess before me. It was like being given a maths problem when your brain’s exhausted, and you know there’s some far-off solution, but you can’t work up the energy even to give it a go.

pg 208 – Sometimes I get so immersed in my own company, if I unexpectedly run into someone I know, it’s a bit of a shock and takes me a while to adjust.

Why should you read this book?
This story is intense, subtle, delicate. Its characters are flawed, obsessively so. The overlying plot is science fiction, but without the hopeful ending we expect from genre fiction. Definitely a literary piece, I’m debating whether I actually liked it. For you writers, however, read this for a good example of a first-person narration where the narrator is sensitive, passive, and suspicious without really knowing why. There is no real oppressor or antagonist, reflecting life. If you liked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I did, then you will definitely like this book.

August 2010 Update

This book is now being made into a movie, which looks breathtaking: Never Let me Go theatrical trailer

Book: Hurricane Moon

Title: Hurricane Moon
Author: Alexis Glynn Latner
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 397 pgs

Summary: It is the late 21st Century. Catharin, an idealistic astronaut-physician, is part of the crew of Aeon, a starship sent out to find a new Earth. She wants to help society start anew, now that medicine has solved all major problems; molecular biologist Joe Devreze, however, just wants to run away from Earth, for reasons Catharin can’t figure out. Everything goes awry when Aeon reaches a double-planet system: one dubbed Planet Green is covered with vegetation, the other, Planet Blue, is consistently covered with hurricanes. As Catharin and Joe start to settle into Planet Green, Catharin discovers problems with their DNA… to the point where they might be the last humans in the universe. Can she trust Joe, and his shady motives, to save humanity? And just how much attention should Catharin pay to her subconscious warnings that Planet Blue is more than just a watery moon?

Excerpts:
pg 118 – To Catharin’s consternation, Miguel laughed like a carefree man. “Oh, but we need [Joe]. Most certainly, we need him. You see, the gods who are creator and creatrix, especially of small worlds, always take themselves too seriously, and they want their work to be perfect. But evil spirits appear and they start spoiling things, and the gods would give up and throw the world away and start over, if they could. Fortunately, in almost every creation myth, soon there also comes the trickster god. His name is Coyote, or Pan, or Raven. He does absurd and mischievous things that annoy the creator gods. He saves the world, too.”

pg 198 – Maya had glittering green eyes and long dark hair with auburn highlights, and a willful attractiveness that Joe sensed as tangibly as feeling wind or heat.

pg 234 – What the hell had he been doing those years? Working. Walking. Inventing. Suddenly Joe thought about fairy tales, the ones about changelings who grow up to find out that they have no soul. It was an uncomfortable thought.

pg 256 – “Catharin is a cool customer,” Joe said to Wing.

“She’s like a violin. Quiet and tightly strung.”

“D’you suppose she ever lets her hair down?”

Wing answered with a promptness suggesting he’d reflected on this topic before. “I think her nickname, Cat, is apt, Joe. I think she has the soul of a tiger.”

pg 329 – “Luna is hundreds of light-years away, but her influence is woven throughout our evolution, our bodies,” said Sam. “We women are joined to the powers of life and change and birth. Birth scares the men. That’s why WE scare them. But change doesn’t have to scare US.”

Why should you read this book?
This may not be the most unique ideas, that in the future Earth falls to ruin and we send our best out in the universe to find a new Earth, but this is definitely the best-executed idea that I’ve read in a while. Much of the story rotates around the biology and evolution of people and their environment; much speculation is made about why there is a Planet Blue and a Planet Green, and we never really know if it’s the truth, only that this is what the characters have decided must have happened. I loved the science behind it all, mainly because I used to be obsessed with the moon (I kind of still am) and how it affects us daily. The characters react as you expect people to react to something so foreign as two Earth-sized planets on spin-lock around each other.

Latner does a wonderful job of making you feel scientific by the end of the book. She explains without making you feel stupid, and so you know what these highly-scientific characters are doing without getting into unnecessary details. Her use of tension is subtle, but effective: I jumped twice and even yelped once when I was reading and a friend called out to me as he walked past. That hardly ever happens to me (I read so much that I’m almost jaded sometimes). A unique book with a good execution, and even with some romance, this book was entertaining and even informative.