Saturday, January 28, 2012

Touch and Go by Thad Nodine (2011)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Thad Nodine's debut novel, Touch and Go (2011).

Our narrator, Kevin, is a struggling journalist and recovering junkie who has been clean for two years. He is also completely blind, having lost his sight in an accident when he was five. He lives in Burbank with a married couple, Isa (who Kevin is secretly in love with) and Patrick, who he met while they were all in rehab together. Isa and Patrick have two foster children, a 16-year-old black teen named Devon, and a 12-year-old Hispanic boy named Ray. Isa's estranged father is dying in Pensacola and the whole gang decides to pile into Patrick's shitty car and drive out to see him with an ornately carved wooded casket tied to the top of their car. Oh, and they've accidentally timed it so that they'll be on the gulf in Biloxi when a little hurricane called Katrina blows in.

The quirky dysfunctional family / road trip set up had me nervous at first, but this book really pulled me in. Telling the entire story from the perspective of a blind character was a risk, but Nodine pulls it off and the result is rewarding. Rarely do we have a book where we really don't know what any of the characters or locations look like, but we know how their footsteps sound and the smell of their perfume, or exactly the way their skin feels. The climactic scene in the hurricane is made even more harrowing because we can't see it, and characterizations and actions open up to the reader in unexpected ways when our primary sense is taken out of the narrative.

There are some mis-steps in the action, and the dialogue is occasionally a little off, but overall this is an energetic and well-written first novel. It's worth seeking this one out.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

My good friend Dan gave me this copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962). At least I think he did -- it has been in my pile for so long that neither one of us can really remember how I got it. I do know that I have been excited to read more Shirley Jackson ever since Dan lent me The Haunting of Hill House, and I can't believe it took me so long to get to this one.

Six years ago, four members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed at the dinner table after their sugar bowl was laced with arsenic. The younger sister, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (known affectionately as Merricat), had been sent to bed without supper, and so avoided the deathly sugar bowl. The older sister, Constance, prepared the meal and didn't take any sugar on her berries, and so became the prime suspect, although she was eventually acquitted and sent back to live with Merricat and their Uncle Julian. Julian survived the arsenic, but was permanently disabled and weakened after the poisoning.

The Blackwoods are hated by the people in the village, both for their wealth and for getting away with murder. Constance refuses to leave the estate, and Merricat is teased and harassed on her twice-weekly trips to the village for food. Still the two women and the dotty old man are happy in their isolation and seem willing to continue on like that indefinitely, until Merricat senses that things are about to change. That change is the arrival of their estranged Cousin Charles, and what he sets into motion can never be undone.

This is a relatively simple story that is elevated by the decision to give us as a narrator the increasingly unreliable Merricat. Ordinary actions and coincidences take on a sinister meaning through her mystical mind, and anything that moves to disrupt the sanctuary of her home or the routines of her beloved sister is treated severely. Like The Haunting of Hill House, the mystery in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is secondary to the psychology of the characters. This was Jackson's last novel, and it should move its way up to the top of every reader's pile

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R. R. Martin (2000)

The always-amazing John lent me the extremely hefty third book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series A Storm of Swords (2000), and even though it took me three weeks (!) to read it, I'm still a little sad that it's done.

The third book in the series amps things up with more maps, more appendices, more characters, and more pages (almost 1200). This infrastructure is nicely balanced with more action, more death, more freaky magic, and more improbable creatures. I'm not sure how Martin turned me into a fantasy lover, but I think it happened. I actually get excited to see the dragons!

I don't even know how to begin describing the plot of this one in a way that would make sense without spoiling things for those who haven't read the other two, so I'm not going to try. It is safe to say that the battle for power over the kingdom of Westeros continues, and no one is giving up anytime soon. Sometimes Martin's creation gets a little big for even him to handle, and some characters were ignored for hundreds and hundreds of pages while the action went on elsewhere. I'm not sure that there is anyway around that when your series is so epic and huge, but it might be nice to check in with everyone a little more often.

Finally: this book made me really like the previously rather evil character of Jaime Lannister, which was unexpected. Also people die. A lot of them. Suddenly and surprisingly. And that never gets old, sweetlings.

Get book #4 ready for me John, because after a little break, I'm going to want to dive right back in to Westeros...

Saturday, January 07, 2012

All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers by Larry McMurtry (1972)

The supremely lovely Jennifer LaSuprema lent me a copy of Larry McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers (1972) and as a huge McMurtry fan, there was no way I could resist.

All My Friends... is McMurtry's sixth book, but it has the easy flowing, autobiographical feel of a younger work. Our hero is Rice student and aspiring author, Danny Deck. On a spur-of-the-moment trip to Austin, Danny wakes up on a floor next to the beautiful (and super tall) Sally, and instantly falls in love with her. He steals her away from her drunken professor lover and takes her back to Houston where they decide they might as well get married. Sally doesn't really like any of Danny's friends, or even Danny, all that much, and the two of them mostly have sex and sit around silently. Things change for Danny when he finds that his first novel is going to be published, and that Hollywood is interested in making a movie version. Flush with cash, the book turns into a road trip when Sally and Danny leave behind Danny's sultry neighbor and motherly friend and head to San Francisco where their relationship falls even further apart at the same rate that Sally's pregnant belly grows. Things go down and up and down again and end up back in Texas. Because how could you not go back?

One thing my summary doesn't capture is how freaking funny this book is. I could name a dozen scenes that had me laughing out loud, and the loose, anything-can-happen structure of the book reminds me of my favorite seventies movies. And if you have lived in Texas for anytime at all, McMurtry's descriptions are going to bowl you over. From drunken, academic Austin to swampy Houston to the dry expanses of West Texas and the contradictions of the Valley, McMurtry knows Texas.

The "young" feeling of this book and its protagonist that give it so much energy and humor sometimes drag it down with a bit of sad isolated artist syndrome. Danny simultaneously envies the warm acceptance in the homey kitchen of his best friend's wife Emma (who he can't mention without describing as chubby), but also feels he is too artistic, different, and special, to ever have that kind of comfort. I think these are the conclusions of a young artist who needs to feel like his successes and romances and life is much different from all the ordinary people he sees around him (the ending scene of the book really backs this up). If I read this book when I was 18 I would have been cheering for Danny the whole way. Reading it as a 35 year old makes some of his artistic antics a little annoying.

Still, if you like Texas, the 70s, a good laugh, or McMurtry, this one is highly recommended. A fun and fascinating look into an artist as a young man. Read it!