Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I'm part of the 1% who gave this book two stars on Goodreads. At the bottom I link to other Goodreads reviews which I looked at after I posted my review. I am not alone in not being wowed by this book.

Spoilers ahead, be warned

This is the story of Catherine Danielle Clark was known a Kya or The Marsh Girl by the people in the town of Barkley Cove on the coast of North Carolina. She and her family live in poverty in a shack by the water. When she is seven her mother walk out on the family and her brothers and sisters drift away as well. She is left with only her abusive alcoholic father. By age ten, her father has left and not returned leaving Kya alone. She avoids other people and spnds her time in her beloved march collecting. She is befriended by Tate, the son of a fisherman. Tate shares her love of nature and teaches her to read and brings her science books. When Tate, despite of promises, doesn't come back to her after leaving for college, she is devastated and returns to her solitary ways. Later, Chase, the son of owners of a Western Auto in town, decides to have some fun and begins grooming her. When Kya discovers that Chase is planning to marry someone else she breaks all contact with him. Kya has now been abandoned by her family and two men to whom she was attracted and she is confirmed in her desire to be left alone. With encouragement of Tate who does return but isn't able to rekindle their relationship, Kya sends her nature paintings to a publisher and is soon a published author in her early twenties. While she is on a trip to see her publisher, Chase is found dead at the base of an abandoned fire tower. The sheriff is able to get enough circumstantial evidence to build the case that Kya murdered Chase and she is arrested and brought to trial but is found not guilty and she returns to the marsh.

Crawdads has near universal acclaim and the film rights have been acquired by Reese Witherspoon so why am I an contrarian? The theme is a good one but there are just too many annoying details for me to be wowed. I think we are supposed to be swept away by the beauty of the writing to take notice of details that might jar the reader out of the story. More on that later.

The first what the hell event occurred early and made me wonder if the author had done any research on North Carolina or even looked at a map. Kya's father leaves her alone for several days to go to Ashville, NC to see about his disability pension.The story is set on the coast and Ashville is in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far western part of the state. Later Tate tells Kya that his deceased mother and sister went to Ashville to get him a birthday present, Chase takes Kya with him when he goes to Ashville to get supplies for the store. Nope. Wouldn't happen. Ashville is not any kind of major metropolitan area where someone on the coast would go for services and supplies. To get there travelers would have to go past Greenville, Chapel Hill, Durham, the state capitol, Raleigh and Charlotte. It is such an absurd element to put in the story you have to figure that the author needed to have character go on a long trip or didn't look at a map.

The nature writing isn't consistent and goes from very nice to clunky and overwrought to field guide descriptions. The prologue is a good example of the author's nature writing.
Marsh is not a swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in the water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-;egged birds lift with unexpected grace —as though not built to fly — against the roar of a thousand snow geese. 
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair.

Then you get this:
Kya leaned over gently, as if to kiss a baby. The microscope's light reflected in her dark pupils, and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water.
One Goodreads reviewer commented how Kya becomes a man magnet after living alone, never seeing a doctor or dentist and with questionable hygiene. Her hair is likely to be a tangled mess and she is going to be pretty hairy compared to town girls. She gets her water from a hand pump meaning it is a shallow well and who knows what is in the water. It is difficult to believe that nothing happened to her, living as she does, that would require a doctor. I think it more likely that she would be smiling with rotted stumps.

And what about hurricanes? Five hurricanes struck North Carolina during the period this story is set. This includes Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 storm that struck in 1954. Ignoring that hurricanes are a danger to coastal North Carolina is to ignore a significant part of living on the North Carolina Coast.

When the book turns to Kya's relationships with Tate and Chase it becomes a rather poor teen romance. Goodreads reviewer Amy Watson described it as a Mills and Boone romance novel and another called it a bodice ripper. Amy also quotes this terrible bit of dialogue which isn't an isolated example

"I love you Kya, you know that. You've known it for a long time."
"You left me like all the others''
"I will never leave you again."
''I know.' She said."
"Kya do you love me? You've never spoken those words to me."
"I've always loved you. Even as a child- in a time I don't remember- I already loved you.

The best part of Kya relationship with Tate is when they left each other specimens on a stump. Chase, on the other hand, is a predator, grooming Kya for bragging rights for getting her virginity. I don't mind a bit of rumpy-pumpy but I thought the sex scenes in the book were poorly done.

The mystery surrounding the death of Chase could easily have been left out of the book. Spoiler: she did it and got away with it. In fact, I wish the author had used the space to actually develop Kya's character. If there has to be the murder then more backstory would have been nice. We know she felt betrayed by Chase but what was going through her mind to cause this shy and reclusive young woman to murder several years after she was betrayed. Did theyt have interactions we don't know about.

All-in-all it is a good premise not well executed. Maybe the film will be better.

Some of my favorite Goodreads reviews that I want to be able to find again:

Jessica Woodbury who calls Kya Manic Pixi Dream Girl in the Marsh
Lindsay Nixon who worked pluff mud into her review
Liza Fireman
Krista who found passages for me to quote so I didn't have to re-read
Hoolia who raised the issue of hurricanes and medical issues
Walker Doermann who raised the questin of Kya as man magnet.
Amy Watson who compares the later part of the book to a Mills and Boone novel
Anne who gives a feminist perspective
Julia who gives us some perspective from someone familiar with the area

Review: In Bloom by CJ Skuse

In Bloom is probably a Marmite book; you'll love it or hate it. I have an opened jar of Marmite in the cupboard and have been eagerly awaiting this sequel to Sweetpea so you can figure where I stand. The UK's self-described psychopath and serial killer, Rhiannon (Rhee) Lewis, is back and this time she has company with a conscience.
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The setting is still the West Country of England, close to Wales and is told in first person.

 The blurb on the cover describes it as Bridget Jones meets American Psycho but I don't think that is a good comparison. Rhiannon is much closer to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter Morgan. Here's one similarity: like Dexter, Rhiannon has an undeniable compulsion to kill and also like Dexter, she is selective who she kills, she only kills bad people (well, mostly). Rhiannon is very self-aware of what she is and matter-of-factly says, For me, killing is what makes life worth living. She just in control enough to channel her urge.

In Bloom opens exactly where Sweetpea ended, with a body in the bathtub and Rhiannon fearing that it's the police pounding at her door. To her relief, it is just an elderly neighbor leaving for the shops. Rhiannon is able to get rid of the body—AJ, the father of her child—and get her noisy neighbor out of the way. She moves in with her jailed fiance's (Craig) parents who think that they will be grandparents.

 Rhiannon found herself pregnant at the end of Sweetpea and with a title like In Bloom you can figure the focus of this story. Each chapter is headed with stage of her pregnancy giving the the week and day. She goes into great detail on the changes in her body which may make some readers squeamish. The twist here is that Rhee and the foetus talk to each other. The foetus tries to talk Rhee out of killing any more out of survival. And the foetus isn't above making her feel guilty about killing the father. Is there a psychic connection or does Rhiannon actually have a conscience manifesting in these conversations? This may seem like a lame story element but it is really well done and frequently very funny.

 Rhee continues to be sarcastic, foul mouthed, hyper sexed, and very funny. Her attempts to be part of a mommy group and another ladies society are hilarious. Besides her urge to kill again — she has several candidates picked out much the the distress of the foetus — Rhee is continuing to fit up her cheating fiance (currently awaiting trial) for her murders and is gaslighting the woman with whom he was cheating. This is a really nicely done and reveals Rhiannon's deviousness. The reader (me anyway) frequently doesn't see what she is up to with her plan.

All is not smooth sailing, however, as there is a detective who isn't as convinced by Rhiannon's act as everyone else.

The book ends with a good setup for a sequel and I can hardly wait. I don't think I've read another series since Dexter where you find yourself rooting for the serial killer, even one as rude, crude, funny, and profane as Rhiannon.

Sweetpea, the first book in the series, is available from Amazon.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: A Ladder to the Sky (2018) by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky is different from my usual reading which leans toward the hardboiled and noir. But members of several book groups on Facebook mentioned Boyne often enough that I decided to give him a try. I am glad I did because I greatly enjoyed this twisted saga of a man's ambitions.

Maurice Swift wants nothing more than to be an acclaimed author. He has the drive but unfortunately lacks the talent. What he is skilled at is appropriating other people's stories as his own. Maurice is a character the reader has to despise. His actions, what he does to people makes you want to see him brought down...hard.
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The book has an interesting structure. There are three, first person narratives. These narratives are separated by two second person interludes that highlight an event in Maurice's life. I don't want to say much about the first person narratives because it might spoil the story but it isn't giving anything away to say that the first shows Maurice as a young man beginning his ascent. Just to entice you, the first interlude has Maurice spending the night in Gore Vidal's villa. With Vidal's acerbic wit, this was a fun bit. As I read the first narrative, I thought of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley. Like Ripley, Maurice is immoral and likely a psychopath.

I'm not sure how to do justice to Boyne's style but the three narratives in three voices and the two interludes flow into a compelling story that is difficult to put down. This is an excellent story about obsession, delusion, and the craft of writing. A Ladder to the Sky is likely to remain one of my top reads of 2019.

Film Noir: Blast of Silence

This 1961 black and white production was staring and written and directed by Allen Baron. Hit man "Baby Boy" Frank Bono comes to New York City on a contract to take out a second-string mobster. While eating alone, Frank meets Petey and his sister Lori who he knew from the Catholic orphanage where they were raised. Against his survival instincts, Frank is persuaded to attend a Christmas Eve party where he unexpectedly enjoys himself. That, and and another episode, makes Frank begin to question his profession, something that can be fatal in his profession.

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Blast of Silence is very good film noir and the more I think about it the more I recommend it. It's a slow build by today's standards but effective when you see what the director is doing. The emphasis from the start is that Frank is alone, isolated from the rest of humanity. His isolation is his shield, one that allows him to be very good at his job. When that shield begins to come apart Frank has violated the code of his profession making him vulnerable.

Much of Frank's isolation comes from a voice-over that persists throughout the film. It got a bit annoying and I'm not sure it was entirely necessary but it does serve to express Frank's inner state. Baron calls the narration a Greek chorus and Frank's alter ego that establish his feelings and some of his fantasies. The voice-over goes on too much about Frank's sweaty hands, hot hands, cold hands.

In the first part of the film there is a long scene with Frank walking through the city on Christmas Eve. This is probably the slowest bit but it does serve a purpose. It emphasizes Frank's isolation as he walk alone amidst the festivities around him. There is a really nice long shot of Frank walking down thirty-fourth street toward the camera. He starts as a small figure in the distance and the camera stays on him from a low angle as he approaches. It's pre-dawn, there isn't anyone else on the street and Frank walking briskly, hands in his pockets. There is a strong theme of alienation and existentialism to this film. The film begins in blackness with a dot of light bobbing around. The voice-over says "You were born in pain" and the dot is revealed to be the light at the end of the tunnel as Frank is simultaneously born and dropped into Penn Station. He is full of hate and the narration comments on the hate he has for the target. Tailing his target takes him to Harlem where the narrator observes that "you hate them and they hate you." Frank makes an attempt to change his situation but is rejected and badly misreads another situation plunging him back into his isolation. Frank has no possibility of redemption and is doomed.

The cinematography is very good using classic film noir techniques of lighting, shadows, and angles. I enjoyed the visual aspects of the film very much. There is a cool jazz score that is appropriate for the city setting. The city itself, as Baron says, is practically a character in the film ranging from Greenwich Village, to Midtown, the Staten Island Ferry, and the streets of Harlem, to Jamaca Bay.

For the most part, I thought the acting and dialogue were a little stilted. With one exception. Larry Tucker as Big Ralph. Frank goes to Ralph to procure a gun and silencer for the hit. The scene where Frank goes to Ralph's apartment is a beautiful piece of staging. Ralph is obese, his apartment a mess, and he keeps pet rats but he makes the most of this scene with his delivery and actions. He comes through with the most expression. Really nice and I've watched it several times both for Ralph and the subtle but effective set dressing.

If you appreciate film noir then you need to check out Blast of Silence. If you're just getting into film noir you'll see nice examples film noir filming techniques. Besides being a good story with good noir style, the film is remarkable for another reason. Allen Baron had no background in film having been an artist working as a cartoonist, commercial illustrator, amd fine art. On a trip to California he visited a film set and knew that is what he wanted to do. He did some work on another film but Blast of Silence is his first production. The film is evidence that his background as an artist gave him a strong visual sense. The Criterion edition has then-and-now photos from various scenes in the film as well as a sixty-minute making of feature. with Baron visiting various locations and commenting on the filming

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review: The Mark by Edyth Bulbring

Juliet Seven (aka Ettie) lives is Slum City in a post-catastrophe version of Cape Town, South Africa. An event known as the conflagration has left half the moon dark and blasted and led to the big drowning which left old Cape Town submerged. Ettie is destined for the life of a Drudge serving the upper class and an arranged marriage when she reaches 16 years old. But Ettie is unusual — for one she can read— and she just may be The Chosen One. Chosen for what we don't know yet but it may be to bring down the feudal society of the State of Mangeria where she lives.

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The Mark is a dystopean young adult novel. Being a card-carrying geezer, I'm not in the target demographic. But you know what, a good story is a good story and this is a good story well told. I'm not about to deny myself the pleasure.

Part of my enjoyment of dystopean literature is how the author extrapolates a possible future and Edyth's book is a first-rate piece of world building. I can easily envisage that a devastated world where the technology that survived is in the hands of the elite leading to a feudal society where most of the population are Drudges who serve the Poshes. This world is harsh, hostile, unforgiving. Drudges who are no longer productive are discarded, thrown out of the city finish their short lives as rejects.

What technology remains is in the hands of the Poshes and specifically the ruling Mangerian families. They operate The Machine, a computer (we assume), that makes decisions on every aspect of life in Mangeria including what work a Drudge will be trained for and who they will marry. The Drudges are kept under control by the Locusts, the law enforcement arm of the justice department and by their dependence on factory produced food.

Ettie is a likable and repeatable strong female character. She sees more and thinks more critically than most of the adults in her world. She is adept at applying what she calls her masks to adapt to situation in which she finds herself. She struck a deal with a blind book collector who taught her to read in exchange for Ettie reading to him. This gives her access to a world of books and ideas and her first person narrative is peppered with references to stories such as the Magic Faraway Tree (which I also read as a young reader), Alice in Wonderland, and The Hobbit.

The first half of the book creates a detailed and vivid picture of Ettie's world. I found it a believable world that didn't stretch credulity.One of the major detalis about this world that should resonate with us tody is that sunscreen and sunglasses are now absolute necessities. With the climate change warnings we see nearly every day this doesn't seem far-fetched. Also, little details, like cockroaches being on of the few insects to survive adds to relatability of the story. The second half sees Ettie placed in service with a Mangerian family and we begin to see what happens behind the scenes and things start coming together that will propel the story onward.

There are fantastical element with Ettie as The Chosen One whose coming has been foretold and soothsaying hadeda birds. This is where me not being part of the target audience shows. Back when I was in my early teens I would have loved the idea of being The Chosen One. Now, I find myself thinking that the story would work as well without the mystical bits because of the excellent world-building and strong protagonist. But it's all good and I look forward to seeing how Edyth develops The Chosen One plot line.

The sequel, The Reject is now available as an Amazon Kindle edition.

Questions to be answered:
What is Ettie's destiny as The Chosen One
How much of the world is affected by the post-conflagration devastation

I very much enjoyed The Mark and it is one that I know I would have devoured when I was in my early teens though in the 60s my enjoyment would have come from excitment and escapism.

There are a lot of web articles about the popularity dystopean young adult fiction and a surprising number asking if adults should be reading these books (the answer is yes).

Elissa Nadworthy actually talked to teens about dystopean literature. Relatability is a factor. Here are a few selections from the NPR article, Why Teens Find the End of the World so Appealing. 2017 Elissa Nadworthy NPR
"There tends to be a common teen-angst thing, like: 'Oh the whole world is against me, the whole world is so screwed up,' " Will explains.

Teenagers are cynical, adds Aaron Yost, 16. And they should be: "To be fair, they were born into a world that their parents kind of really messed up."
Everyone here agrees: The plots in dystopia feel super familiar. That's kind of what makes the books scary — and really good.

Think of it like this: Teen readers themselves are characters in a strange land. Rules don't make sense. School doesn't always make sense. And they don't have a ton of power.
The fact that these books offer a safety net, a place where kids can "flirt with those questions without getting into trouble," that's reason enough to keep teachers and parents buying them off the shelf.
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