The Dreaded Three (Point Five) Star Review: Blind Spot by Laurence Miall
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
When his parents’ car is hit by a train, Luke, a failed actor, returns to his Edmonton hometown to attend their funeral, wrap up their affairs, and prepare their house to be sold off. But while all others around him grieve, Luke remains detached, striking up a relationship with a woman in a neighbouring house… and stumbling across evidence that his mother may have engaged in a longstanding extramarital affair herself.
I overthink book ratings. I work in marketing, so I think about the implications of a three versus a four start review, particularly for the indie or small press author. I design consumer surveys, so I know how finicky rating scales are, and I know about the biases that creep into a rating, no matter how objective you think you are.
I have plenty of my own quirks: I’m stingy with my five-star ratings. I’m a fan of the half-star (damn you, Goodreads) and often change my mind after an initial rating. And a three star rating, like I’ve given Blind Spot? Ugh, I hate a three star rating. It’s so wishy-washy. It’s a safe, “I liked it, it didn’t blow me away, but I don’t hate it” kind of rating. And while those statements do apply to this novel, I’m also still thinking about it weeks later, which isn’t wishy washy at all.
I’ve been thinking about ratings lately. How I arrive at them, what they mean, and are they fair. Check out this blog post (and my comment) on Follies Past for more on that. In the meantime, here are some things I think about when rating a novel, and how Blind Spot stacked up.
1. The basics
This one’s pretty simple: does the book have enough going for it in terms of plot, character, and style to avoid a one-star rating? I can usually tell after the first chapter. I read a preview of Blind Spot‘s first chapter and was intrigued enough to add it to be TBR list (and to request a review copy.) It presents an Artful Dodger-and-Oliver type scenario, where the streetwise older kid gets the younger kid to do his dirty work, with predictably disastrous results. It’s set in 1990s Edmonton, a very familiar place and time for me to read about bad kids smoking and getting in trouble.
I felt an immediate and uncomfortable identification with Luke. I was doing the same kind of things, in 1990s Edmonton, just a few neighbourhoods over. Miall’s straightforward writing style makes it easy to get into the story, and it fits with Luke’s character; he also seems to be a very straightforward kid trying to fit in and be cool. When we jump to Luke in his early 30s, things aren’t as straightforward – he’s got his parent’s suspicious death to deal with, on top of a failing career and empty relationship.
2. Emotional response
Five stars doesn’t mean a book is perfect; it’s usually tied to an emotional reaction on my part. I rated The Cat’s Table five stars, despite not liking an entire section of the book, and despite suspecting it wasn’t Ondaatje’s best work. I quite simply fell in love with a sentence and that was that.
Here’s where my rating for Blind Spot gets tricky. I didn’t laugh, cry, or hurl. I didn’t underline any sentences because they were beautiful. I did grow to hate Luke, after identifying with him in the beginning, though. I’m trying to figure out why I hate Luke so much. He is a major dick to his sister, indifferent to his nieces and nephews, and does that thing where you dump someone by cheating on them and waiting for them to find out and dump you. All bad, but maybe not deserving of fiery hate. I actually found myself speaking aloud at times: “Are you for real,” and “You are awful,” and several times just “ugh.”
Luke is not a sympathetic character that you’ll fall in love with. You won’t root for him. You won’t put him on your “Top Ten Fictional Characters I’d Like to Have Lunch With” list. He embodies white, upper middle class male privilege and is just so lacking in self-awareness. Oh, and he’s really really ridiculously good looking, too! I don’t know why that makes it worse, but it does!
So – I didn’t have the “this book changed my life” emotional response that earns 5 stars, but I definitely had a response.
3. Would I recommend it?
Having eliminated one and five star ratings, I think about whether I would recommend it (and to who) to figure out where it lays between two and four stars. In market research, we put a lot of stock in likelihood to recommend. It makes sense; it not only predicts what people like, but what they will share and advocate and create buzz for.
I would recommended Blind Spot, so I know I’m on the 3 or 4 stars side of things. I’m about to recommend it to the author of a novel called Spat the Dummy, which you will read about here soon, because it also features an “anti-hero” but the treatment is so different. In Spat, the hero does horrible things and is bent on self-destruction, but you feel for him. You want him to get better, to be better. In Blind Spot, Luke also seems determined to ruin himself. But I didn’t want Luke to win or get better. I wanted some comeuppance! So this is a “if you liked this, try this” type of recommendation too; I just happened to read these books side by side but I was glad I did. It made me realize how unconventional this story really is. It’s easy to sympathise with an anti-hero you think you can fix. Luke seems beyond help, somehow.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend Blind Spot to everyone. The writing is minimalist, so if you’re in the mood for poetic or lyrical, I wouldn’t start here. If you can’t handle an unlikeable main character – definitely not. And I’m not sure if I would recommend this for a “light” read – it’s blurbed that way on the cover, but I didn’t find it that light. Easy to follow, yes, but I think of “light” reads as having some kind of happy ending, or redemption, or hope – the ending of Blind Spot is very, very bleak and left me unsatisfied.
4. Am I still thinking about it?
I was leaning towards three stars. In fact, I began this review by writing “3/5 stars.” But I’m adding the .5 because for a simple story and a simple character, there’s a lot to think about. Why is Luke the way he is? Is it something about his parents? His unsatisfied mother or his absent father? Is he an alcoholic? Mentally ill? A product of a shallow society? Why can’t this young, handsome, financially secure guy can’t get his shit together, and if he can’t, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I mentioned the unsatisfying ending. After finishing, I had all sorts of questions. I immediately flipped to the front of the book, looking for a clue, and in this passage, I found something. We’re back with bad-boy Joel and 11 year old Luke:
I still longed to have his unflinching confidence. No one had ever raised him; no one looked out for him. Joel looked out for himself.
I wanted that self-reliance.
Now, so many years later, I’ve arrived.
I no longer think of this particular three-star rating as wishy-washy. Maybe it’s ambivalent. As anyone who’s watched Girl, Interrupted as many times as I have knows, ambivalent doesn’t mean you don’t care, it means you’re torn between two things. I’m torn between hating of Luke and admiring the consistency and commitment Miall brought to his character, not for a second trying redeem him. I’m torn between wishing the ending had been more hopeful, more damning, more something, and realizing that it was not supposed to be satisfying. That isn’t the point.
What, you thought I’d get through a review without making a 90s pop culture reference?
So yeah, three stars: I liked it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t blow me away. But I’m definitely going to watch for Miall’s next novel, because it just might.
Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy! The book launch is tonight, Friday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. at The Black Dog on Whyte.
This is becoming a common addendum: Please go read Another Book Blog’s review, in which he took the best blog post title, and read his interview with Laurence Miall, in which he took all the good questions. *shakes fist*
Fall 2014 Preview Part One: Most Anticipated Books
Watch for Part Two: Literary Events next week!
If you follow literary publications like Publishers Weekly, Quill and Quire, or 49th Shelf you’ve probably noticed a bunch of “Most Anticipated Fall Books” lists lately. I find these lists really overwhelming! There are tons of books and they don’t seem to be listed in any kind of order. Here’s my attempt to impose some order on the situation. Geographically, anyway. This is also a handy preview of what you’ll see reviewed here on Reading in Bed over the next little while.
Disclosure: I received reviews copies of most of the Canadian books. Also, I’m panicking about writing all these reviews.
Last year, I wondered if it was normal to have SO MANY Edmonton authors launching SO MANY great books all at once, and indeed, it may have been an anomaly. I had a hard time finding books to list here. I assume everyone’s just working on their next novel. Actually, I know Todd Babiak is working on a sequel to Come Barbarians and Jennifer Quist finally named her next novel, but hasn’t revealed the title just yet. No pressure guys (just kidding, lots of pressure!)
- The only Edmonton book I am certain to review is Blind Spot by Laurence Miall. I’ve already read it and I’m trying to figure out whether I liked it or not! I’m not one to dismiss a novel because of an unlikable character, but man, this guy is unlikeable. Check out Another Book Blog’s review while I sort out my feelings. The book launch is September 5th at The Black Dog, which features prominently in the book!
- Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton is eco-lit (which I don’t always love) and epistolary (which I usually do love,) but I kind of want to read his first novel, Icefields, first. The librarian who sold it to me at the library book sale was SO EXCITED about it.
- Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette is a YA novel, but I’m feeling the need to shake things up a bit. Sometimes YA is just the ticket.
- Edited to add: Northeast by Wendy McGrath, a rare novel because it is written by someone who lives in Edmonton, and is actually set in Edmonton! It’s about a working class family in the 1960s and I have heard McGrath’s writing described as more like a poem than prose; I am really curious about this book and the first in the series, Santa Rosa.
- I devoured Between by Angie Abdou while I was slogging my way through Outlander. Actually, I devoured a number of books while forcing myself to read Outlander. That could be it’s own post. Anyway, this book forced me to relate to an unlikeable character and it was uncomfortable and shocking and dark, and these are all compliments! Review to come and book launch September 12 in St. Albert and September 13 in Edmonton (7:00 p.m. at Audreys, see you there).
- I got a review copy of Man by Kim Thuy in ebook format, but I bought the hardcover anyway, because
I’m crazyit’s beautiful. It’s a novella that’s almost written in verse and it’s unlike anything I’ve read. I’m just getting started so check out Hello Hemlock‘s review while I finish up.
- Did you know SportLit is a thing? The things you learn on Twitter. In Girl Runner, author, blogger, and The M Word contributor Carrie Snyder writes about a woman at the end of her life remembering the days when she could run.
- I feel like Sweetland by Michael Crummey has been out for a while. because of all the hype, but it was just released so I’ll call it a fall book. I love island settings, so this story of a dying community in Newfoundland should do just fine.
- Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi was published in India a couple years back to great acclaim and is being published in Canada this year by Freehand books. I’ve heard it’s like a classic, like a fable, like a myth – ok, sign me up!
- Detachment by Maurice Mierau provides a little non-fiction balance to this list. It’s an adoption memoir written from a father’s perspective – a perspective I’ve been missing from the parenting books I’ve reviewed of late.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Marukami (Japan) because I’m not immune to hype. Also, look at this review by The Heavy Blanks. Just look at it. It’s perfect.
- A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland). The good reviews make me want to read it. The bad reviews make me want to read it. Just give it to me already!
- The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink (US). A wildcard pick. It’s blurbed by Jonathan Franzen and this bit of the synopsis tells me why: “Life becomes complicated with affairs, birding, and eco-terrorism.” That’s classic Franzen. It’ll either be great or have great snark potential.
Yes, I do plan to read a few! I might have to do a Classics Club spin or something. I was thisclose to jumping on the #readWP (that’s War and Peace) bandwagon but the first page was mostly French and I just wasn’t in the mood. What to do?
- Suck it up and read War and Peace?
- Shirley and/or The Professor by Charlotte Bronte? I could finish off my outstanding Bronte novels this year…
- Remains of the Day is pretty hot right now…
What are you most excited to read and review this fall?
The Shore Girl by Fran Kimmel
My rating: 4/5 stars
Rebee Shore’s life is fragmented. She’s forever on the move, ricocheting around Alberta, guided less than capably by her dysfunctional mother Elizabeth. “The Shore Girl” follows Rebee from her toddler to her teen years as she grapples with her mother’s fears and addictions, and her own desire for a normal life. Through a series of narrators–family, friends, teachers, strangers, and Rebee herself–her family’s dark past, and the core of her mother’s despair, are slowly revealed
The first sentence in the synopsis is bang on. Rebee Shore’s life is fragmented. So was my reading experience. So is this review.
I’ve been paralyzed for six months in writing this review. The reasons are uninteresting, but most come down to the fact that I don’t quite know what to make of the book. I enjoyed it, but my reactions were a little strange. Like how I didn’t cry while reading, despite many tragic circumstances, but cried suddenly and heartily upon finishing the last page. Because I was going to miss the characters? Because I had a bad feeling about the main character, Rebee? I think it was supposed to be a optimistic ending, but I had this sinking feeling…
I can tell you now that I’m all grown up, that I don’t need a mother to keep me safe. That might be a lie.
After Alice by Karen Hofmann
My rating: 4/5 stars
Having escaped the place in her youth, retired professor Sidonie von Taler returns to her ancestral Okanagan valley orchards still very much in the shadow of her deceased older sister Alice.
As she sifts through the detritus of her family history, Sidonie is haunted by memories of trauma and triumph in equal measure, and must reconcile past and present while reconnecting with the people she left behind.
Karen Hofmann’s debut novel blends a poetic sensibility with issues of land stewardship, social stratification and colonialism. Her eye for period detail and characterization is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” or Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel,” while her lyrical realization of bygone B.C. pastoralia recalls the work of George Bowering.
The blurb is right: After Alice reminded me of The Stone Angel, big time. This is good, because TSA is one of my favourite books, but it’s also bad, because nothing can really measure up. Eventually, I realized there are enough differences here for After Alice to stand on its own, majorly influenced by Laurence, perhaps, but not derivative.
Where The Stone Angel fascinated me with it portrayal of aging – of a woman aging, specifically, and reverting back to childhood impulsiveness and petulance – After Alice frightened me. Hagar was 90, an age one may or may not reach, but Sidonie is in her 60s, and her stubbornness, her ambivalence towards her nephews and nieces (which reminded me of Hagar’s hate-on for Martin,) the creeping suspicion that she had mattered too little, had left no mark – is too close for comfort.
Sidonie’s retreat to her abandoned childhood home and subsequent illness are very reminiscent of Hagar’s journey into the wilderness. It may just be a coincidence, but I recently read yet another book with the “aging woman wanders into wildness, is stranded, and reflects on life” thing (Malarky, review forthcoming.) Is this becoming a cliche? It is effective though.
There are also shades of The Grapes of Wrath in the plight of the seasonal workers, both necessary and marginal. The reverse colonization, where Japanese labourers are brought in, during Sidonie’s childhood, is contrasted with present-day gentrification.
After Alice isn’t just about aging and pastoral scenes. It’s about importance of relationships, or sometimes, the lack of importance. I was struck by how few words are given to the recounting of Sidonie’s married years. The fact that Sidonie’s married life wasn’t central to her story was unexpected and I don’t know what that says about me, but it certainly conveys that Sidonie is an unconventional character given her age and background.
Hofmann is really effective in revealing the ambivalence in close blood relations – siblings, children, cousins. The sisters, Alice and Sidonie, especially. After sniping at each other in a way that is horribly recognizable, Alice lets her guard down for just a moment and Sidonie realized she doesn’t know her sister anymore:
“I pity you,” Sidonie says… “because you’re married to Buck, who, everyone knows, is a drunk and a bum, and you’ll always be poor and have black eyes and get fat.”
And then Alice opens her mouth in a sort of grin that is also a snarl, a rictus, and Sidonie sees what Alice has been hiding with her hand, her tight-lipped speech. Both of Alice’s upper eyeteeth are gone, pulled out, and dark spaces agape. Alice is missing teeth. How has this happened?
I was also fascinated by Alice as a mother, disgusted with her deaf child Claire; and how Sidonie related to Claire after Alice was gone, and then, in the present day, how Sidonie placed so many hopes on Claire’s child, teenager Justin. The portrayal of Justin and his two teenage cousins was great. They are at times sulky, entitled and “emo” but then suddenly caring and resourceful. The kids gave this book a hopeful tone that I welcomed, after the slow revealing of Alice’s death and Sidonie’s childhood trauma.
That slow reveal is so well done. Hofmann tells a story over many generations and places and not only makes it coherent, but makes you want, no, need to know more. Not a lot happens in the present, but after the halfway point, actually, right around the point of that excerpt, I needed to know. What happened to Alice? To Sidonie? Who was to blame? How did they seemingly end up trading fates?
After Alice has the makings of a CanLit classic, with complex characters, heavy themes done with a light touch, and expert pacing. Did I mention that this is Karen Hofmann’s first novel? I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy!
For an amazing review of After Alice, check out Pickle Me This.
2014 Preview: Diversity, CanLit, Classics, and Second Chances
I’m still catching up on 2013 reviews, but 2014 reading is well underway. Here’s what you can expect this year on Reading in Bed.
I am pretty dismayed that off all the books I read last year, only 12% were by authors of colour. Here are some of my current and planned reads that will help tip me over 25% this year:
- The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. It’s my current read and HOLY CRAP IS IT GOOD.
- The Bridge of the Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. nybooks.com says: “This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.” Yeah. Plus, that cover.
- Inside Out: Reflections on a Life So Far by Evelyn Lau. An excuse to write about how Lau’s first memoir, Runaway, changed my life.
- Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor. My favourite calendar girl in Bare it for Books.
Follow book blogger Leonicka for lots of resources on diversity in Canadian literature. She’s going all out and reading 85% authors of colour this year!
My next local read will likely be Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak. As for new #yegwrites stuff, so far I’m looking forward to Marina Endicott‘s fourth novel, Falling for Hugh and Laurence Miall‘s debut novel Blind Spot.
Here’s a great roundup of Edmonton books in 2014.
Apart from the Edmonton stuff, here’s my most anticipated CanLit:
- Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. She’s got a way with titles. I loved Room and Slammerkin, so my expectations are high.
- The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. I’ve been waiting eight years for O’Neill to write another book. Bring it on!
- Crime Against My Brother by David Adams Richards. Apparently brings the main character of Mercy Among the Children back – one of my favourite books of all time.
I will also solider on with the Storytellers Book Club challenge. It helps that I won a set of all five books in their contest last year!
I haven’t forgotten about The Classics Club! In fact, I’m right on pace. I chose 50 books to read over five years, and approaching the one year mark, I’ve read eleven.
I’m also contemplating Behold the Star’s Russian Literature Challenge. Krisitlyn of Reading in Winter gave me War and Peace for Christmas, plus I hear reading Chekhov can improve your life.
Back from the DNF
I might set this one up as a challenge hosted here on the blog. I’ve abandoned a few books over the years, and this is the year I give them another shot. I’m including books that I straight up DNF’d (did not finish) and books that I finished, but didn’t really appreciate, often because I read them too young. Here is a sampling, with my excuses for not finishing in the first place. Watch for an introductory post soon (and if anyone wants to help me design a button, that would be cool…)
- Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: Pregnancy brain
- Tinker Tailor Solider Spy by John LeCarre: Baby brain
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Too young. Attempted at 22 or so and got really lost.
- The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuois III: Too young. Read at age 20.
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies: Too young. Forced to read in high school, I hated it. Read a description of it recently and it sounds AMAZING.
This sounds like a lot of books, but I’m leaving room for random books, recommendations, read-alongs, and review books; you know, the four Rs.
Obligatory end-of-post question: what are YOU planning to read this year?
Eat It edited by Nicole Baute and Brianna Goldberg
My rating: 4/5 stars
What’s the best way to poison one’s husband? What happens when the body itself becomes a source of food? Can a potato be political? EAT IT ’s contributors explore these questions and more with equal parts humour and gravitas, revealing that for many women food is about love but also power, biology, social obligation, experimentation, nourishment, pain and pleasure.
My husband says that my sister and I are obsessed with food. It’s true that any time we’re together, the conversation tends toward it, but, isn’t it normal, almost necessary, to talk about something you do three, (okay, seven,) times a day? I suppose it’s true that a vegan (her, not me) always has more to consider and plan. But are we really that weird for talking about recipes and restaurants and our mutual crush on Chef at Home?
Eat It made me feel a little more normal. Here’s a whole bunch of people just talking about food, and writing poems about food, and imagining menus and remembering childhood meals. Of course, it’s not only about food. As the subtitle suggests, there’s more at play, and for women there are usually extra helpings (sorry) of guilt and shame on the one hand, and love and acceptance on the other.
Let’s address the all-women thing: this book isn’t *for* women. Anyone who enjoys a good short story or poem or creative non-fiction will get something out of this. But I love that this book is written, edited, and published by women. I’m paraphrasing @snpsnpsnp (again!) when I say that feminism isn’t making stuff for women, it’s women making stuff, and so this right here is feminism in action!
The stories are grouped into sections that correspond to life stages. This made me wonder: what is it about relationship status and food? The ice cream for the single and broken hearted, the home cooked meal for the domesticated, pickles for the pregnant? Why are these images so enduring in our culture? I don’t have an answer after reading this book, but I do have a whole bunch of perspectives on food and life from some awesome writers.
Now, the stories: I have a few favourites to tell you about, but the whole collection is quite strong. There aren’t many big names; former Giller short lister Sarah Selecky is probably the biggest. The variety of forms and tones and voices is quite impressive for such a slim book. It really would have made a perfect stocking stuffer for my food-obsessed sister; I just wasn’t done reading yet.
- “Pot Luck of Nutritional Tips” by Sara Hennesy. You may have seen Sara on Video on Trial, which I shame-watched regularly back before I had to worry about my kids repeating everything they hear. Her monologue had me laughing and nodding (“Slather my lady junk in yogurt for all the right reasons? Done and done.”) and it’s a pretty good commentary on the ridiculousness of media messages about women and food.
- “A Lady’s Gotta Eat” is the story of one woman’s quest for the perfect hamburger and also maybe an orgasm? I don’t know, I was reading all sorts of stuff into this one.
- “Left Over” by editor Nicole Baute is a very short piece about loss and remembrance and it made me cry.
- “Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows” by Katie Daubs, for the title, and the first line, “Girls started dressing like sluts for Halloween in 1997,” because that was the first year I did it, too.
- Stories about breastfeeding! There are two, one poignant and one hilarious. This is very relevant for me as my two year old nursling shows no signs of stopping, and even I, pro-breastfeeding, quasi-attachment parent, am questioning whether it’s time to shut it down. The whole “if he can ask for it, he’s too old” thing is clearly baloney, but where’s the pithy saying for a 35 pound toddler who motorboats you and screams “I need it,” because this was not covered in What To Expect. Uh, your mileage may vary on this one.
A note on how to find this book: it’s a little tricky, as it’s likely to be stocked with literary journals, but I’m told the easiest way to is to order online here. I would lend you mine, but it’s going to my sister next.
(Psst, Cait: I made Isa Chandra’s vegan chocolate cookies last night and they were amazing. It’s the molasses, I think. We ate them all, sorry.)
Thank you to the editors for providing a review copy of this book!
Reading in Bed Year in Review #4: Best Books and Blog Stats
I love statistics. You’re probably sick of them by now, what with the many end-of-year blog posts, but I love how they’re both meaningless and mean everything; how “numbers don’t lie” but they can tell whatever story we want them to tell. Here are the numbers that made up my year of reading.
…but first, a public service announcement: Goodreads has a sweet stats thiny that shows you how many books you’ve read, how many pages you’ve read, how you rated your books, and more! Go to “My Books,” then “stats” which is on the left side in tiny font, then click “details.” It’s magic! Here’s mine. You can also export your books to Excel to do EVEN MORE analysis – click “import/export” in that same tiny, left hand menu.
- Books read in 2013: 52 (Book a week!!)
- Books read in first six months: 12
- Books read in last six months: 40
I knew my reading picked up after I finished Moby-Dick this summer but I didn’t realize the extent till now. I never thought I’d read 50 books in a year, but it looks like I could reasonably go for 75 next year!
About the Author
- 35 Female (67%) 16 male (31%) 1 various (2%)
- 22 Canadian (42%) 16 American (31%) 9 British (17%) 2 French (4%) and 1 each: Columbian, Russian, Irish.
- 48 white (88%) 6 visible minority (12%)
I didn’t restrict myself to female authors this year, but I did stack the deck a bit by choosing female authors on the Classics Club list, and, by accepting review copies from independent presses – I have a feeling that female authors are over represented in smaller publishers. I won’t set any specific goals for next year, but I’d love to read more books by minorities. I’m sure I’ll still read lots of CanLit, butI gotta read some more World Lit too, beyond the States and the UK. Anyone got any good world lit reading challenges happening? I’ll probably do the Russian Lit one but would love to broaden my horizons even further…
Genres and Lists
- 18 classics (35%), 25 contemporary lit fic (48%), 3 non fiction (6%), 3 YA (6%), 2 romance (4%), 1 anthology (2%)
- 11 1001 Books for a total of 115 read
- 11 Classics Club picks for a total of 11
- 10 five star reviews (19%), 19 four star reviews (37%), 14 three stars (27%), 3 two stars (6%), and 2 one star reviews (4%).
Compared to the average Goodreads rating…
- I rated 22 books higher. The most underrated book was The Testament of Mary, which I rated a 5, compared to average 3.56 rating.
- I rated 28 books lower. The most overrated book was Dragon Bound, which I rated a 1, compared to average 4.19 rating.
- 17,000 page views in 2013. Compare that to 900 in 2011 and 3,500 in 2012. As Disco Stu would say, “if this trend continues, HEY!”
- Most viewed post of 2013: What’s The Deal With Infinite Jest? It’s a year later and I still don’t know what the deal is! It’s funny because I wrote it in a very unplanned, stream of consciousness style, which I don’t often do. I’m just happy to share the WTFness and the DFW love.
- Most viewed post that was actually written in 2013: The Fault in Our Stars: Use Your (Literary) Allusion. I get searches for “Fault in our stars allusions” on a daily basis, particularly in the summer, which tells me that a lot of students write papers on TFioS, and makes me realize how different writing papers must be these days.
And now, on to the good stuff: my best and worst reads of the year!
Storytellers Book Club #1: The Progress of Love by Alice Munro
For all the details on The Storytellers Book Club, see my introductory post or Douglas Gibson’s website.
This update’s been a long time coming. I signed up for this CanLit challenge back in August. Alice Munro’s Nobel win inspired me to get cracking with The Progress of Love. I’m down to the wire here – I have till Dec. 31st to review a book club selection for a chance to win all five books, including selections from CanLit heavyweights Davies, MacLennan, MacLeod and Gallant. I’d tell you to get on it too, but with two days to go, you’re either in or you’re out by now!
The Progress of Love: Review
I was third in line for this book at the library for a couple of weeks, which is unusual for something published 25ish years ago. Must be that Nobel buzz! But you wouldn’t know this book is 25 years old. Munro’s stories are timeless, and you feel they could have been written 100 years as easily as 10 years ago.
The Progress of Love isn’t Munro’s most famous collection. It won the Governor General’s Award but her two Giller winners, The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway, seem to be the most well known. My only experience with Munro is Too Much Happiness, and with only that for a basis of comparison, The Progress of Love didn’t quite measure up. The first five stories were so good that the rest were slightly disappointing. My favourite was “Miles City, Montana” which shows us that the Mommy Wars are nothing new:
I had a dread of turning into a certain kind of mother – the kind whose body sagged, who moved in a woolly-smelling, milky-smelling fog, solemn with trivial burdens. I believed that all the attention these mothers paid, their need to be burdened, was the cause of colic, bed-wetting, asthma. Continue reading
Hellgoing by Lynn Coady
My rating: 4/5 stars
With astonishing range and depth, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady gives us nine unforgettable new stories, each one of them grabbing our attention from the first line and resonating long after the last.
Equally adept at capturing the foibles and obsessions of men and of women, compassionate in her humour yet never missing an opportunity to make her characters squirm, fascinated as much by faithlessness as by faith, Lynn Coady is quite possibly the writer who best captures what it is to be human at this particular moment in our history
I apologize for posting the following self-congratulatory tweet, but for book bloggers, I don’t think it gets better than being acknowledged by an author you love. The Giller Prize’s Twitter account asked us to review a long-listed book in 13 words exactly:
It’s true, though, “trapped” was the first word that came to mind after reading this collection. Reading these stories was uncomfortable and claustrophobic. I was literally squirming at times. Coady gets us so close to her characters, it’s almost embarrassing, and I have a real problem with vicarious embarrassment. I’m one of those people who have to change the channel when a character is too exposed, or being made a fool of.
The first and last stories were the strongest. Maybe that’s just primacy bias, or maybe it’s my own experience that made these stories devastating – the first is about an alcoholic, the second about a teenage pregnancy, both topics that tend to punch me in the gut.
“Wireless” opens with a hangover, and it’s one of the best descriptions of one I’ve read:
She lay flat on her back for twenty minutes, gauging the pain, the depth of her dehydration. The song in her ears. She sat up, and a second later her pickled brain slid back into its cradle in the centre of her cranium. Time to throw up.
I haven’t had a hangover in five years and reading that made me shudder. The whole story is disconnected and fuzzy, like that poor, pickled brain. What’s with the two mentions of Beanie Babies? What’s with the title? What’s the deal with Ned, the man Jane meets, another alcoholic who is lying to her for unknown reasons? We never find out.
The last story is “Mr. Hope,” and it’s another strange one. This is the one that really prompted my “uncomfortable” response. There’s something off about the whole thing and I can’t figure out what. Is it because the narrator refer’s to her teachers large belly as his “D,” as in the shape of a “D,” given the (gross) internet meme thing “she wants the D?” Because the way Mr. Hope interacts with the kids is kind of age inappropriate, and you wonder what else inappropriate is going on? Like this scene, where he is inexplicably trying to force a grade one class to come up with a definition for “love:”
“Love is when you hold a puppy.”
Mr. Hope slammed his fist against our sweet-faced grandma-teacher’s desk.
“LOVE IS NOT,” he bellowed, “WHEN YOU HOLD A PUPPY.”
Behind me, I could hear someone’s breath hitching rapidly in and out and I tried to shush whoever it was as quietly as I could.
“Where is it?” Mr. Hope demanded to know. “What is it? Think about that, people. You’re all so sure about this thing, and you can’t even answer the question. I’m not asking you when it is. A rock is a small hard round thing. Okay, that’s not great, but at least it’s a start. So what kind of thing is love? Big or little? Soft or hard? Black or white? Or coloured?”
And it gets more awkward from there. I reread this story in it’s entirety for this review, and it struck me differently this time. That’s the great thing about these stories – they’re ambiguous, not in an unresolved way, but in a way that you can read into differently each time.
A few of the other notable bits include:
- A story that’s made the best use of texting I’ve encountered in fiction- and I know that’s quite a feat, have heard from authors who’ve set their stories in the past specifically to avoid having to deal with technology,
- An Edmonton winter story that should have been in the 40 Below anthology; I know so because I drove myself nuts searching for it in my copy of 40 Below while writing my review,
- Stories about self-harm, anorexia, self-doubt, and general dysfunction. Cheery stuff.
Some of these stories stuck with me. Some of them made little impression at all. I want to see what Coady can do with a novel-length story. I know, it’s probably a book-snobbish way to think, but it’s true. Rather than the recent and critically acclaimed The Antagonist, I want to start with Strange Heaven which sounds right up my alley. Another story about a teenage mom – I really should branch out.
The Giller Effect
Reviewing the book’s Goodreads page, I was surprised to see only 101 ratings. The Giller Prize was announced a few weeks ago, and the long and short lists have been out for months. I’m not sure if Goodreads ratings is a valid criteria, but it’s easy to do a few comparisons:
Past Five Giller Winners:
- Hellgoing – 101 ratings
- 419 – 4000 ratings
- Half-Blood Blues – 6563 ratings
- The Sentimentalists – 1691 ratings
- The Bishop’s Man – 3187 ratings
The other 2013 shortlisted titles have around 100 ratings each too, so maybe they just need more time. Though somehow long-lister Claire Messud has nearly 10,000 ratings for The Woman Upstairs!
To ensure this wasn’t a Canada thing, I checked out the recent National Book Award recipient Good Lord Bird – 500ish ratings. Maybe people (or, more specifically, people who are active on Goodreads) don’t give a shit about award winners. Compare (and weep) with Dragon Bound’s 15,000 ratings.
As for whether or not Hellgoing deserved to win, well, you’ll have to wait for my review of Caught for my final thoughts. I only read these two, so I can’t weigh in on the travesty of The Orenda not making the shortlist. Totally a coincidence that I read the two female authors on the shortlist too, I swear!
Snap Scene: Picture Me Reading
Apparently using memes and GIFs is a “controversial” technique for reviewing books. While I’m certainly not clutching my pearls over this (I’ve used memes and GIFs myself,) I agree with the article’s assertion that they can be overused and just as cliche as calling a book “staggering” or “unflinching” or whatever.
So, maybe you should create your own visuals. Yeah, you can take a picture of your copy of the book, but that’s pretty boring too. Why not take things a little further and recreate an entire scene? Or take a picture of something that evokes the ambiance or the theme of the story? This is the idea behind Snap Scene, an Instagram project from Jessica Kluthe, author of Rosina, The Midwife (my review here.) From Kluthe’s website:
What is Snap Scene? It’s a simple concept. It offers another way for a reader to encounter a story/book/novel: through a photograph (a “Snap Scene”) that illustrates an otherwise text-only scene. It will offer the viewer some value by taking the viewer inside the story, the novel, the book, the essay…
If you’re a writer/author, this is a great chance to connect with some new readers. If you’re a bookworm, this is a great chance to find your next read.
What do you need to do? Stage a scene that illustrates a passage from a book/novel/story/essay. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you please. Along with the scene, in the caption below the photo I’d like to include 3 – 4 sentences from passage that inspired your Snap Scene.
Here’s an example Snap Scene of Love Letters of the Angels of Death, reviewed here not so long ago:
“I love how his headstone is so elegant and simple,” you say, defying the prejudices of no one in particular. “Remember that when you’re ordering one for me, Brigs. I don’t want anything too fussy–no statues or angels or lambs.” “I thought gravestone lambs were just for dead babies.” You’re turning away from me, waving one hand. “Everyone’s the same age in heaven.” – From Jenn Quist’s Love Letters of Angels of Death.| #author submitted #snapscene| http://www.jenniferquist.com
To date, Snap Scene’s contributors have mostly been local authors promoting their own books, but I think the potential for reader participation is huge. It’s a cool way to share what you’re reading and help other people discover a new book that’s a little more creative than #FridayReads. It also reminds me of wildly popular Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90201, where literary quotes are juxtaposed with pop culture images, so the appetite for this kind of thing is there. Continue reading