Girls in Trucks: the Southern Carrie Bradshaw?

May 27, 2008

Girls in Trucks is Katie Crouch’s debut novel, and as an example of the craft of writing, it’s not a bad effort.  It is primarily the story of Sarah Walters, Charleston debutante and member by birth of the Camellia Society, one of Charleston’s most exclusive social clubs.  Sarah grows up in a large house and struggles to find her place among Charleston society as she is neither a beauty nor a brain.  She goes to college up North and settles in NYC with a few of her other Camellia Society friends.  She dreams of being a journalist but sabotages herself; she is crippled by her relationships with men and has a genius for picking the wrong guy.  She drinks too much.  She indulges in drugs.  In short, she is anything but fabulous.  A family crisis brings her back home to Charleston where she must come to terms with the direction in which her mother is determined to take her life.  And then…the book ends.

This book perplexed me.  I read it in about 5 hours, so it’s a quick read.  I read it based on reviews like this one in Entertainment Weekly.    I read it because like Sarah Walters, I, too, am a Southern girl and though I was not a debutante, I have friends who were.  I read it because I was curious to find out how a modern Southern woman would be portrayed.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed. 

It reads like it was a project for a graduate-level creative writing project.  It has shifting points of view and unreliable narrators.  A major axiom of writing is to show, not tell, and perhaps it showed too much and told too little.  It is crafted like a series of short stories or vignettes sewn together into a book with nothing connecting them but the main character.  It feels a little too…modern…for my tastes.  It is proud of itself and its cleverness.  It has a plot, sort of.  Reviews have called it a bildungsroman or coming of age tale. Perhaps a dystopian one for I’m not really certain that Sarah has come of age or learned anything or even developed by the end of the book.  Sarah is 35 at the end of the book (it begins when she is around 10), so she is a few years older than I am, and I feel like part of the purpose of the book is for her to speak for a generation of Southern women of a certain age.  Well, by God, she doesn’t speak for me. 

I don’t understand Sarah’s motivations or lack thereof.  She somehow manages to grow up with no confidence or self-esteem despite growing up in a loving, wealthy, socially-prominent family.  Cry me a river!  I don’t understand why she makes the decisions she makes, and frankly, she’s just a screw-up.  God knows that my life hasn’t been a fairy tale, and I’m not necessarily looking for the Disney ending despite what it sounds like, but I don’t think she deserves any kudos for her life.  All I ask is a little self-awareness and a little determination to change what you don’t like about yourself.  Nothing irritates me more than a person (or character) who admits that they have problems and then do nothing about it.  At the end, the novel holds out an opportunity for Sarah to make a freaking good decision, and again, she runs the other way.  Is this what the modern Southern woman is?  I think not. And I refuse to salute her for it. 

Why so disgusted?  Obviously I had a strong reaction to this book.  First of all, maybe it’s because I have been inundated with Sex and the City commercials and articles everywhere, I couldn’t help but see this book as an attempt to establish a dystopian SATC with Southern characters.    Because we all long to move to NYC and be fabulous.  Riiiiight.  All of the Camellia daughters are screwed up.  All of them.  And I’m not talking the normal amount of neuroses that everyone has.  I’m talking drug problems, alcoholism, abuse, infidelity, doormats, and promiscuity.  We’re supposed to learn from this? 

There was one part of this book that was stunning…Bitsy, another Camellia and old friend of Sarah, writes a letter to the successor in her husband’s affections that is amazing.  If only all of the book had been like that.

What baffles me more is that this novel has received pretty much universally glowing reviews.  And I don’t get it.  I feel like they read a different book than I did.  I didn’t find nearly any of the meaning these reviews ascribed to it, which makes me doubt my own impression.  Why did I dislike it so when so many reviewers loved it?  I guess… I guess I am out of patience with people who can’t get their lives together especially when I can’t see any reason for their lives to be in such poor shape. 

If you liked The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, (another book I didn’t love) you’ll love this book.   


For a Few Demons More: Rachel Morgan Book 5

May 27, 2008

For a Few Demons More is Kim Harrison’s 5th installment in her Rachel Morgan/the Hollows series, and it is probably the best book in the series I have read so far.  Rachel awakes one night to find a demon trying to possess her, looking for…something.  At the same time, Were women in the Hollows are dying, and they all have a similar build and coloring.  Does any of this have anything to do with the Focus, the artifact from book 4?  Old “friends” reappear to cause trouble:  Trent Kalamack, Al the demon, and Piscary as well as the Weres Rachel irritated in previous books. 

This book marks a turning point for the series because a lot of loose ends are tied up and relationships destroyed.  A forest fire can make way for new growth, and I have the impression that’s what Harrison’s intention was in this book.  Things have changed dramatically for Rachel, Ivy and Jenks by the end of the book, and I am intrigued to see what happens in the next installment.  This book was long, though, and I question whether it needed to be so long.  It seems like it took a long time to get to the main action.  I’m not sure if any scenes needed to be cut, but I wonder if they could have been tightened.    I still am unsure whether I like what’s going on with Rachel and Ivy.  It seems couterintuitive that a vampire would be so needy, and it annoys me that everyone keeps pushing Rachel to do everything Ivy’s way.  Maybe Ivy should find a therapist.  I do like how introspective Rachel is.  That seems rather novel for most fictional characters, and I am enjoying watching her character develop throughout the series.

A little Trent/Rachel action wouldn’t be unappreciated, however 😉

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose: Fading flowers?

May 27, 2008

I had a four-day weekend for Memorial Day, and I was finally able to get a lot of reading in.  I started and finished 3 books and started a 4th.  Now that’s more like it!

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is Lauren Willig’s 4th installment in her historical romance Pink Carnation series (think Scarlet Pimpernel).  The story centers around Mary Alsworthy, beautiful yet still on the shelf after 3 seasons.  Even more galling is that her little sister stole her fiance out from under her, making a genuine love match, and has generously offered to fund a 4th Season for Mary.  Desperate to avoid this humiliation, Mary agrees to a mission offered by the Pink Carnation, a job that will provide her enough money to pay for her own Season.  Her mission:  to ensnare the dreadful Black Tulip, a French spy.  Her mission requires her to work closely with Lord Vaughn, a haughty, mysterious nobleman whose own loyalty is questioned and whose wife died under mysterious circumstances many years ago.  

The problem with books in a series is the amount of time between the publication of each book.  The first one was published in February 2005.  The second and third books were published in 2006, and the 4th one in February 2008.  I don’t remember when I read the first one, but I read the second and third installments over Christmas 2006.  As a result, it has been over 1.5 years since I read a Pink Carnation book.  My memory is good, but it’s not that good.  And I wasn’t devoted enough to the series to re-read the previous books in preparation.  As a result, I found myself having to search my memory for who the characters are and trying to recall the previous plots.  That difficulty may have colored my perception of this book.

This book was just ok.  I feel like everything was a little to light in this book:  the plot, the characters, the action.   The book was fairly long, so it seems that there were a lot of words without much actually going on.  Willig wrote that she was writing this book while starting a new job, and frankly it shows.  I felt like I should have swooned over the mysterious, dark Vaughn, but…eh.  I did feel a little bit for the humiliated Mary, but since I’m not ravishingly beautiful and not usually the belle of the ball, I couldn’t empathize overmuch with her situation.  As mentioned before, my memory of the previous books isn’t great, but it seemed that the other books focused a bit more on the ostensible reason for the plot:  the spy ring.  That element was really missing from this book.  It appears that more attention was given to developing the romance between Mary and Vaughn, but even that seemed to come out of left field a bit.  Suddenly, he loves her! 

Overall, I really like the series’ concept:  Eloise Kelly, a modern Ph.D student, researches 19th century flower-named spies (the Scarlet Pimpernel and Purple Gentian) for her dissertation, discovovering the identity of the mysterious and elusive Pink Carnation in the process as well as possible romance.  Each book tells the story of a different adventure for the Pink Carnation and the Pink Carnation’s assistants, and the action moves between the 19th century and modern England.  I also like that each story depicts a woman’s active role in protecting her country.  These books are historical romance (light on the smut though).  Willig is a real-life Ph.D and knows her stuff.  This book, however, is not up to her previous efforts.  Hopefully the next one will be, and maybe I will even re-read the other books in the series before it comes out 🙂 


Precious Blood: Kay Scarpetta Wannabe

May 22, 2008

It took me far too long to finish Precious Blood, the debut novel of real-life NYC medical examiner Jonathan Hayes, and frankly, it wasn’t worth the time.  Retired NYC ME Edward Jenner (is that the name of the real-life guy who discovered the smallpox vaccine? A quick Google search confirms this.  Oh, how cute.  Gag), who fell apart after 9/11, is retained to consult on the murder of the his friend’s niece’s roommate.  She has been brutally murdered, but her roommate, Ana de Jong, escapes and finds he way to Jenner’s apartment (plausible?) where she takes up residence.  It becomes evident that a serial killer is on the loose, and soon we are treated to the killer’s point of view, Jenner inserting himself into the case and flouting the authorities, and the weird relationship between him and Ana while he races to solve the case.

Bless Hayes’ heart.  He tried.  He tried hard for several hundred pages, but it just didn’t work.  Jenner was cold, emotionless and under-developed.  Ana was weird and a distraction.  The “man” is against Jenner, refusing his involvement with the case even though his stunning finds are the only leads they have and apparently they can’t solve anything without him.  The serial killer is stereotypical and cliche.  Oh, and let’s throw in a little Catholic priest involvement in the killer’s development for a dash of spice and seal up everything and shake vigorously.  What emerges?  A mess.  It looks good from the outside.  It reads well…the forensic parts especially…but it’s a mess.  And the ending!  It just ends!  All that attempt at a build-up and then…the day is saved, the end.  Ugh. 

Recommended:  Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan books; early Patricia Cornwell

A Thousand Splendid Suns: Not so splendid for some

May 22, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to write about this book.  Some if it is due to scheduling issues (I’ve been busy), but I suspect that more of it is due to the fact that I’ve needed more time to mull over my impressions of the book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, recounts the recent history of Afghanistan through its impact on the lives of two women.  Mariam, the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, grows up in a rural hovel with her bitter mother.  She idolizes her father, not comprehending why she can’t live with him and what her status is in Afghani society.  After her mother’s horrific, spiteful death, she is married off to Rasheed, a much older, brutal, misogynistic man.  In contrast, the beautiful Laila, about 20 years younger than Mariam, grows up in a (mostly) loving family and is pushed to learn by her father.  Her family’s life is tragically touched by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the tribal warfare that follows.  At 15 Laila becomes Rasheed’s (Mariam’s husband) second wife when her parents’ death leaves her with few options for survival.   In a time when law gives men absolute tyranny and domination over women and women have no value other than the sons they produce, Laila and Mariam become allies and each other’s saviour.      

I approached this book with some dread because:

  1. I had to buy it at full price from Barnes & Noble because I was a slacker and didn’t check it out from the library ahead of time and there were no copies available for weeks and weeks, and I very rarely buy brand new books anymore due to the cost and how fast I read 
  2. I’m not especially interested in Afghanistan or Iraq.  I don’t read articles about them.  I don’t watch movies about them.  It’s a topic I want to avoid.
  3. Sometimes you have a sense that the events in a book are going to be so horrific that you really don’t want to read about them.  When I opened the book, the phrase, “it will end up badly” flitted through my head.  

But the book was for book club, so I needed to read it.  First of all, it was a technically easy read.  It kept my attention, and I was able to read it in a few evenings.  That was good. The book is overwhelming.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a society like theirs and live through events that Mariam and Laila did.  Both women were so strong.  Afghanistan seems truly like another world compared to my comfy life in NC.  I’m glad that Hossein wrote a novel about the experience of the Afghani women.  I had heard about life in Afghanistan, but the book really brings home the degradation and deprivation in which women live.   Hossein’s descriptions of Afghanistan were surprising…I’ve never thought of the country as a very lush, green place, but it is or at least it was. 

Nobility and honor are revered in Afghani society.  The men profess that their edicts are tied to those concepts, but their actions bely that.  How can it be honorable to treat women like dirt under the guise of “protecting” and honoring them? How can it be honorable to value sons so much but send women off to squalid hospitals to give birth without proper care or medicine (especially anesthesia!)?  Instead it is the women who exhibit true nobility and honor.  Even after everything Rasheed has done to her and Laila, Mariam still honors him as the head of their household and father of Laila’s children.  In similar circumstances, I don’t know if I could do that.  I’m not saying she should have, but in many ways she is a far better and stronger person than I am.

This novel was painful.  Mariam’s miscarriages really affected me.  Her whole life got to me.  I preferred her to Laila…maybe because she wasn’t pretty and didn’t have the advantages that Laila had…a loving family, first love, children, a future.  Now that I think about it, the only part of the book that I didn’t like was the difference between Mariam and Laila.  Everything bad happened to Mariam.  Ok, yeah, bad stuff obviously happened to Laila too but it seemed like more bad stuff happened to Mariam.  Her life was just a series of bad events.  It was unrelenting.  I envied Laila the good things that happened to her (few that there were) and wished some of them had been doled out to Mariam.  Talk about being born under an unlucky star!  It’s as if she was cursed at conception…as if her illegitimacy was a stain she couldn’t escape.  Mariam’s fate is complicated.  I won’t ruin it, but it’s powerful.  I can’t believe it unfolded the way it did, but I understand how for the one and only time in her life, she had taken control of her life and chosen her own destiny, and for that, I salute her.

Also recommended:  One Thousand White Women:  The Journals of May Dodd (Fergus) Another book for which I had the feeling of “it will end up badly.”

A Fistful of Charms: Rachel Morgan #4

May 20, 2008

A Fistful of Charms is Kim Harrison’s 4th book in the Hollows/Rachel Morgan series.  Rachel and Jinx reconcile in order to locate Jinx’s son Jax who has taken off with Nick, Rachel’s ex, for Michigan.  In order for Jinx to accompany her to the chilly Michigan (pixies cannot handle cold), Rachel must make him human size (much hilarity and ogling ensue).  Ivy later joins them in Michigan, and her relationship with Rachel is altered forever.  Oh, and in the middle of everything else, throw in a lot of werewolves and an ancient statue that could change the power structure in Inderlander society forever if it gets into the wrong hands.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first 3 in the series.  I’m not sure if I understand or even like the turn that Rachel and Ivy’s relationship appears to be taking.  Ivy is my least favorite character.  I believe that Harrison is trying to have us see the complexity involved in being Ivy and feeling conflicted by your desires and destiny, but sometimes (a lot of the time), I just want Ivy to lighten up.  It appears that Nick is out of the picture for good this time, and good riddance I say.  I think I missed the specter of Trent Kalamack in this book 4.  He was nowhere to be found, and I really like what his character brings to the books.  Hopefully book 5 will have lots of Trent.  

The Other Boleyn Girl

May 20, 2008

Most people know (or at least I hope they do; I consider it essential knowledge!) that Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth 1.  What many don’t know is that she had a sister, and before Anne was in Henry’s life, Anne’s sister Mary was the one in the spotlight and in Henry’s bed as his mistress.

Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl  tells the story of the Boleyn children–Anne, Mary and George–from 1521 until Anne’s execution in 1536 from Mary’s point of view.  Mary, though only 14, is already married when the novel opens but is forced to bow to her family’s ambition and begin an affair with the king when she catches his eye.  Anne, recently returned from France, does not like having to subordinate herself neither to her family’s ambition nor to her sister’s elevated status.  However, soon Anne catches the king’s eye, and the sisters’ roles are reversed as it is Mary who must now do what she can in support of Anne’s time in the spotlight.

I really liked this book.  It was a bit sensational in parts and incorporated some of the urban legends about Anne Boleyn (incest, witchcraft, etc.) and wasn’t completely faithful to history (e.g. Anne is the older sister in the book, but she was thought to be the younger in reality).  However, Gregory is a professor, and her command of the history and details of the period is very good and lends credibility to the novel that it may not otherwise have had.  Despite the sensationalism and occasional deliberate inaccuracies, I believe that Gregory has told the emotional truth of those events. 

Very little is known of Mary Boleyn, so Gregory had a bit of a blank canvas with her, but the character’s thoughts and motivations were very real.  She was by turns naive, stupid, and jealous, but I like that she rejected the poisonous court in order to take control of her life and finally carve out a life of her own after being her family’s pawn for so long.  I had always had a bit of a soft spot for Anne Boleyn because she is the mother of Elizabeth I, my favorite and the best monarch ever, but the way she was portrayed in the book made me dislike her a much of the time.  Even though I disliked her, I felt sorry for her.  It can’t have been easy to be a clever, educated woman in Tudor times when women were perceived as nothing more than possessions.  She was ambitious personally, yet she was also forced to be ambitious by her family.  It seemed like she was caught and as much of a victim as Mary was.  In some ways, I feel like she had to make the best of a bad situation, and she did, all the way to the throne of England. Gregory’s characterization of Anne was great.  In lesser hands, Anne could have come off as only a hateful schemer or a seductress, but Gregory made you feel sympathy for her.  Event when she was at her most awful, a shred of vulnerability would come through.  I also liked how the theme of the title was present throughout the book.  At various points both Mary and Anne were known simply as “the other Boleyn girl, ” an epithet that neither wanted. 

Anne’s story is the classic Icarus myth: she flew too high, too close to the sun and it burnt her, ultimately killing her. There’s also a bit of Phaeton’s hubris mixed in since she thought she could control the king, her family and her own destiny, but her ambition literally killed her. It’s interesting to juxtapose her fate with Mary’s, the sister who ultimate rejected ambition.

Good book.  I’m still thinking about over a week after I finished it.

Other recommendations: