The Likeness: Haunting

March 13, 2009

I believe that Tana French’s The Likeness is one of the best books I have read so far in 2009.  Granted, I haven’t read all that many books so far and the ones I have read wouldn’t exactly be candidates for any “best book” list, but The Likeness has stayed with me weeks after I finished it.  It was similar to American Wife in that it was the second book I had ready by an author but happily, while both first books were disappointments to me, I really enjoyed The Likeness.

We met Detective Cassie Maddox in In the Woods.  This novel picks up six months after the events in that novel.  Detective Maddox has transferred out of murder to domestic and while she is in a relationship with another detective, she remains too shaken to commit to him.  Then one day, Cassie’s boyfriend discovers a body of a young woman who eerily resembles Cassie.  She not only resembles Cassie but also carries identification giving her the name of an identity Cassie used when she was undercover at the beginning of her career.  Cassie, however, has never met her.  Cassie feels compelled to help solve the mystery of what happened to the young woman and agrees to go undercover and assume the dead girl’s life as a graduate student living in a house of extremely close  misfits.

There is so much going on in this novel.  Set in Ireland, it’s moody and eerie.  French’s gift as a writer is getting into her characters’ heads.  They are all fully fleshed out.  There are layers of secrets to be revealed, and French handles them compellingly.  Interestingly, how the dead woman came to have Maddox’s undercover identity is never revealed, but really, it doesn’t matter.  French has deeper mysteries to solve.

I really can’t stop thinking about this novel.  It’s not exactly action-packed, but I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I thought the first quarter moved a little slowly as Cassie decided whether she would go undercover, but once she does, the book gets very interesting.


American Wife: Still Inscrutable to Me

March 13, 2009

After reading review after review of Sittenfeld’s novel as well as seeing show up on many “best of 2008” lists, I decided to give American Wife a try.  American Wife is about librarin Alice Lindgren, her life growing up in Riley, Wisconsin and how she ends up in the White House as the First Lady and the wife of a charming, immature, aimless yet ambitious son of a politically-prominent Midwestern family. If you think the story sounds a tad familiar, it is.

American Wife is Sittenfeld’s fictitious attempt to try to solve the mystery that is Laura Bush.  I think many of us have wondered about how this literate, book-loving former librarian ended up with George W.  They are two seemingly very different people. We’ve wondered how she could sit back while her husband presumably tried to attack and dismantle programs and laws she held dear.  By not saying anything, by not publicly disagreeing or possibly privately disagreeing, was she as culpable as he for the state of the nation during and after his 8 years as president?

After reading Sittenfeld’s novel, I’m not sure if I feel any closer to understanding Laura Bush or Alice Lindgren.  Ultimately, I found the book and its attempted explanations unsatisfying.  Honestly, why does Alice love Charlie?  You could argue that opposites attract and that sort of thing, but I didn’t believe their love.  Sittenfeld’s Alice is rather cold.  Sittenfeld uses an adolescent tragedy to attempt to explain why Alice feels unworthy and undeserving of anything good in her life, but it rings hollow.  With as much guilt and blame that Alice carries with her, I almost expected her to wear a hair shirt and flagellate herself.  She seems to float through her life.  It doesn’t help that Sittenfeld’s Alice ends up telling you a lot of the exposition as the book jumps forward in time.  That only adds to the cold, detached feeling one gets from Alice/Laura.

It was an interesting experiment for Sittenfeld:  take an intriguing first lady to whom everyone attributes intelligence, reason, calmness and try to figure out who she is and how she could do…nothing.  Maybe that’s why the novel feels so cold.   One has the visual of Sittenfeld nailing Alice to a piece of felt like some sort of insect and studying her, testing her, trying to explain her actions.  Truthfully, the parts of the book before Alice’s husband becomes president are the best parts.  Once Alice becomes First Lady, the story seems too contrived, too political.  Sittenfeld is trying too hard.

I wasn’t a big fan of Sittenfeld’s previous heralded novel Prep, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at my tepid reaction to this novel.  Perhaps Laura/Alice has the last laugh in remaining an enigma.

Undead and UnWhatever…My latest vampire series

March 13, 2009

Why do I enjoy vampire novels so much?  I don’t particularly like blood.  I don’t want to be “undead.”  I have enough teeth issues as it is (I was born with a tooth and have no enamel on my back molars.  My first dentist decided it was because of the “stress of childbirth.”  Ok, whatever).  For whatever reason, I really enjoy fiction featuring vampires (Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, and the early Anne Rice). 

Anyway,  I recently discovered MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead Series (7 books so far).  As of this week, I have read them all.  The Undead series stars Betsy Taylor whose 30th birthday is memorable for being fired, being killed by a Pontiac Aztec and then not being able to stay dead.  Not only that, but the tall, gorgeous  yet somewhat dim Betsy is apparently the long-prophesied Queen of the Vampires.   Helping her find her way is the brooding, gorgeous vampire Eric Sinclair and his helper Tina, Betsy’s human friends Jessica and Marc, and various other colorful characters include a police detective, her mother, her father and stepmother, werewolves, fiends, and fellow vampires who hate her.  Bless Betsy’s heart, but she never has a dull day.  Oh, and let’s not forget her obsession with high-end shoes. 

The Undead series is light-hearted fun.  Betsy is irreverant, and Davidson’s dialogue crackles.  I laughed out loud at a couple of parts.  In my library, the books are considered romance (notice the large heart on the spine).  There is some good sex, but never fear, there is much less sex than in your average Laurell K. Hamilton novel (it would be hard to match the amount of sex in those, but that’s beside the point).  I enjoyed the first four books much more than the last three.  The last three (Undead and Unpopular, Undead and Uneasy and Undead and Unworthy) didn’t seem to have the spark that the first four did.  With the 8th book in the series due in June, I’m hoping that Davidson is back to form.

Curiously, the series is set in Minnesota, meaning yet another vampire series is set in the Midwest (along with Harrison’s and Hamilton’s).  Apparently Davidson is part of Hamilton’s group or an admirer or something, but I’m just befuddled at so much supernatural fiction being set in the Midwest.  Again, is there some reference guide all supernatural fiction writers use?

Cute series and an easy read.  I read two or three easily in a weekend.

Jane Austen and Zombies

February 4, 2009

I am so far behind on everything that I wonder if I will ever catch up. Part of the problem, dear reader, is that I am expecting a baby in June 2009.  The baby is not the problem.  Far from it!  The problem is the preparation.  My husband has decided to replace the carpet in our bedrooms with hardwoods, and it’s gone a bit slower than we expected.  At the same time, work has become interesting due to a promotion to management for me!!!  Yay!   I’ve been reading, but I’m just so far behind in posting.

Anyhooo…I must post about Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.  What a hysterical concept!  Oh, this is the original zombie link.  It amuses me because I still have World War Z in mind, and combine that (zombies) with Pride & Prejudice just tickles my funny bone.  Enjoy!

Third Degree: Crazy Town

December 7, 2008

I am beginning to wonder if Greg Iles is having marital problems because his last few novels have involved serious marital and custody issues. Third Degree focuses on one horrible afternoon in a couple’s life when a husband discovers his wife’s infidelity and snaps, holding her and their children hostage in their home.   The husband’s behavior had been erratic lately, which Laurel, the wife, had chalked up to his concern about the audit of his medical practice for billing irregularities.  Tipped off to incriminating evidence planted in his house by his business partner, Warren, the husband, instead finds evidence of his wife’s infidelity.  Warren demands the name; Laurel won’t give it to him and the madness intensifies as police–including trigger happy members holding a grudge as well as Laurel’s former lover–gather outside the house, preparing for action.  Will anyone emerge alive from this situation?

Set again in Mississippi, Iles is great at painting a picture of small-town life.  I like that he uses the same area for most of his novels.  Unfortunately, I found this novel to be only mediocre.  I think my biggest complaint is that we were expected to be sympathetic to Lauren and her lover’s situation.  Why should we reward their infidelity?  Why do they deserve a happy ending?  Warren (despite taking her hostage) was not a horrible husband to her.  I felt like Iles was rather one-sided with the story.  He paints Warren and Danny’s (Laurel’s lover) as one-dimensional, horrible characters, and maybe they are, but why should I sympathize with infidelity?  It seems that Danny’s major saving grace is that he loves his autistic son while his wife does not, and I think it’s despicable to use that as a characteristic.

I was also a little frustrated by the constant going back and forth about who Laurel’s lover is and her denials and the fact that Warren won’t listen to her.  Iles put in one too many scenes like that, and I was ready for the action to move on.  It seemed that the rescue team took forever to finally move.

In short, it seems like Iles cranked out this book in as little time as possible with scant attention to character development.  He’s written far better books.

Recommended (also by Iles):

Left for Dead: Me after finishing this book

December 2, 2008

Ha ha.  My poor attempt at a joke.  Kevin O’Brien’s purported thriller Left for Dead begins with a serial killer known as Rembrandt (for his lovely makeup skills) on the loose, preying on women of a certain age.  The focus shifts abruptly when one of his victims, Claire Ferguson Shaw, is found alive.  Once Claire regains her memory and reunites with her family, she begins to wonder what is really going on.  Her friends and husband seem evasive.  Considered troublemakers in their small town, her son has run away, and his best friend has left on a sudden backpacking trip.  Claire’s memory of what happened the night of her abduction remains stubbornly hidden.  And it appears that someone is watching her.  Is it Rembrandt coming to finish the job?  Why are there so many disappearances in her town?  And what’s up with the “civic club” her husband belongs to? Claire must find the answer to these questions…they could save her life.

I think I made the description of the book sound better than it actually was.  The book started off promisingly enough from the victims’ perspective as each encounters Rembrandt.  Even as you were introduced to Claire and learn her backstory, there is still hope.  Unfortunately, what O’Brien appears to lack is nuance.  He is heavy-handed with dialogue and plot.  The comments Linda, Claire’s supposed “best friend” make are so obnoxious and intrusive that it’s hard to imagine any real person not replying, “Mind your own effing business.”  However, these comments serve to let us know that Linda is hiding something and advance the plot.  Obviously this plot advancement could have been handled better.  I also found Claire’s derogatory thoughts about Linda somewhat offensive.  Granted, Linda is evil, but there was something about the way O’Brien had Claire talk about Linda’s food and hair that seemed a little too much.  We get that she is a pitiful, evil, vengeful cow, but come on.  There was a level of meanness that threatened to push my sympathy towards Linda at times.  I think a better writer could have handled that relationship better. All the relationships actually.  The young, handsome detective is treated like crap by everyone except for poor damsel-in-distress Claire for no real reason.  Claire’s husband talks to her and treats her like she is a 4-year-old.  It’s like O’Brien wanted to make as much progress as possible writing his novel and just sped through.

And the plot itself was muddled. I’m still not clear exactly who was responsible for what because it seemed like certain people had certain plans that other people who had been involved in other plans didn’t know about.  Are you confused?  I was. 

I read this book in a few hours and stayed up way longer reading it than it deserved, but I wanted to finish it.  It’s a mediocre book, and I admit to skimming the last few pages because I just didn’t care.  I had an idea where the book was going about halfway through, and it took its precious time getting there.   Thankfully I spent only 50 cents on it at the booksale.

Mistress of the Sun: Beware the Female Icarus

November 16, 2008

Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun is the historical fiction account of Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses.  Tomboy Louise, a noted horsewoman of nobile but impoverished birth, eventually finds herself serving Madame Henriette, the king’s sister-in-law at court.  There she catches the eye of Louis himself and a love affair is born.  Louise is one of the first mistresses of the young Louis.  She is pious and her piety struggles with her love for the man, her dislike for the King and her fear that evil stalks her for her wanton behavior.  Louise finally chooses to save her soul and herself and renounces the king for life in a convent.

Gulland’s book was a little slow to get going and a tad difficult to get into at first, but once Louise makes it to court, the action speeds up.  She is part of the early years of Louis’ reign when Louis is young and full of energy and the desire to do good.  There is no Versailles yet.  Tomboy Louise, meek and angelic in appearance, seems an unlikely candidate for Louis’ eye, yet she does and keeps it for years.  It was a bit disconcerting to read her declare her love for Louis on one page and then strive to avoid hurting the queen, Louis’ wife, on the other.  I doubt many royal mistresses would be so considerate.  She suffers in silence…she is Louis’ mistress before he began flaunting them, and as a result, his liaisons with her and the resulting childbirths are secret.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  To give birth and then get up and attend a ball, acting as if nothing had happened.  Forced to give up your child to others to raise because he or she might be used as a pawn.  I had a lot of sympathy for Louise.  Though I still found it hard to understand exactly what attracted the king to her. 

Gulland also weaves a strand of the supernatural throughout the book.  Louise attempts to tame a wild horse through bone magic in her youth and when it succeeds, she fears the evil she committed stalks her.  That she herself is evil and damned.  Her life and time at court is intertwined with that of Athenais de Montespan, at first friend and later rival and also mistress of the king who is connected with witchcraft. 

Gulland’s tale is interesting, and she takes what little is known of Louise and creates an engrossing narrative.  There is a dreamy quality to the book that prevents most of it from seeming real.  At times it reads more like an intriguing novel set in 17th century France instead of a work of historical fiction based on the life of a real woman.

Also recommended: