Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809Blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review:

Rainbow Rowell, author of my favorite heart-stuttering tales of first love Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, conquers tepid marriage in Landline. Well not so much “conquers” as “casually approaches and throws up her arms in semi-defeat.” Because while a love story comes with a prepackaged resolution—a kiss and confession of mutual desire—a story about a couple with two kids, married for 15 years, not necessarily in love, more so in shambles doesn’t really have a resolution. Sure, the embittered husband and wife can close the book with a kiss and a re-confession of mutual desire, but that’s no promise that the conflict of the 300 previous pages has been definitively surpassed. It’s probably just lying in wait around the next bend.

So what I’m saying is Rainbow Rowell has decided to attack an altogether different subject in Landline. It’s still a talky romance but it’s not romantic. It’s a harsh and measured look into sputtering relationships, into what happens post-happily ever after. I didn’t like it as much as Rowell’s YA novels, and superficially, I must admit that it’s partially due to the lack of will-they-or-won’t-they-please-please-will-they?? flirtation that accompanies two young people falling in love. But although I may appreciate it less, Rowell is no less wise when it comes to describing two older people falling in and out of love on a day-to-day basis. She has some truly fantastic musings on love and marriage, ideas that young’uns like me, people nowhere near slipping a ring on their left hand finger, might be reluctant to accept. She suggests that love is sometimes not enough, that two people can adore each other to the end of time but they will never be happy if they try to stay together. Rowell says things that her teenage characters Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi might scoff at upon hearing but then anxiously turn over again and again in their heads at night before falling asleep. These are truths feared by the young and gained only by maturity.

What I liked less is the gimmick that moves the plot forward. After skipping Christmas with her husband’s family in Nebraska to work, Georgie feels like her marriage might be over until she finds a magic phone that calls her husband Neal in the past. This unrealistic device is incongruous next to the realistic portrait of marriage. It’s also unnecessary. If Rowell wanted Georgie to compare her present relationship to her past relationship, she could have accomplished this merely by making Georgie reflect and remember. In general, the novel feels somewhat rushed, like it could have been constructed with more care and an eye on deleting superfluous scenes.

Selfishly, I want Rainbow Rowell to return to the realm of YA so I can watch two young kids kiss and confess mutual desire, i.e., fall in love. But she definitely has the skill to write about broken relationships and the (im)possibility of their repair—next time, however, she’ll hopefully do this with one less magic phone.

2.5 stars out of 5

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

4407Blurb:

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, AMERICAN GODS takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what and who it finds there…

Review:

Full disclosure:

I wikipedia’d the ending of American Gods. Because I was 70% finished and still utterly uninvested in the characters and unrolling of plot. Here’s what I discovered on the wiki: almost all the excitement must take place in the final 30%!

Evidence:
 photo e46dc30c-de2a-4a45-9488-6a699cabbaf5_zpsb8ffb8ee.png

Half of the wikipedia summary is devoted to the final quarter of the novel!

I’m a very forgiving person when it comes to litcrit, but one thing I can’t forgive in a book is boringness! And oh how I was bored! I read American Gods sporadically. The beginning caught my attention but as the book went on, nothing interesting happened. Worse, the protagonist’s personality has less flavor than the BRAT diet I’m currently consuming to recover from the stomach flu.

Like this protagonist is DULL. Another thing I can’t forgive: when things are super enigmatic and it’s obvious that questions MUST BE ASKED, but for NO APPARENT REASON, a character REFUSES TO ASK THESE MUST BE ASKED QUESTIONS. I think most authors use this lack of curiosity on the part of the protag as a way to increase reader interest. Obviously a story isn’t much fun if there is no mystery.

[Imagine the Harry Potter series with more forthright, less pussyfooted characters when it came to #realtalk:

Harry: Yo Dumbledore, why did Voldemort try to kill me but fail and then give me this bizarro lightning scar and now we seem fated to like, kill each other or something?

Dumbledore: Well young Harry, there is a prophecy…

Harry: …Oh]

But I find it hard to enjoy a story when I can feel an author purposely withholding information from me to serve his own storytelling purposes. Gaiman had some super ideas here. It’s an amazing metaphor for American belief and its paradoxical modernity/antiquity and its oft-discussed role as a ‘melting pot.’ I also have mad love for the Midwesterness at the core of this novel (Wisconsin!). Yet for me a story must excite, thrill, titillate…and as a story, American Gods fails.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam

17415094Blurb:

Billionaire Saul Abercrombie owns a vast tract of land on the Pembrokeshire coast.  His plan is to restore the ancient forest that covered the area before medieval times, and he employs young arboreal expert Tom Curtis to oversee this massively ambitious project.
Saul believes that restoring the land to its original state will rekindle those spirits that folklore insists once inhabited his domain. But the re-planting of the forest will revive an altogether darker and more dangerous entity – and Saul’s employee Tom will find himself engaging in an epic, ancient battle between good and evil.  A battle in which there can be only one survivor.

Review:

I marvel at authors who can transform mundanities into atrocities. Axe-wielding murderers, spiky-jawed sharks, rabidly hungry wolves: these are everyday horrors, implicitly terrifying. But trees? What horror writer would ever endeavor to make trees—those limbed and leafy things we know from birth and walk beneath daily—as frightening as a deranged killer? Stephen King did it with the Overlook’s Hotel topiary animals in The Shining and F.G. Cottam does it here in The Memory of Trees.

He certainly creates an eerie atmosphere as the ill-fortuned protagonist replants an ancient Welsh forest, a well-intentioned act that awakens a centuries dormant curse. Among the yews and the elms and the willows, a decidedly malignant horror stirs, and it is this slow progression of evil that makes the novel quite the page-turner. Plotwise, I have very little to complain about. I found the ending underwhelming, but that’s expected. Horror novels normally revel in the exposition, the descent into madness, not the climax. I absolutely loved how Cottam chose to base the origins of the curse in medieval mythology. In fact, I would have preferred even more exploration of the history of the forest and its horrors.

What I appreciated less, however, was the writing. There are too many simple sentences and the dialogue is something awful. Particularly tiresome is Saul Abercrombie, the main character who desires to restore the forest, who frequently calls his hired arborist, “Tree Man”, and at the age of 70+ seriously uses phrases like “fucking cool” and “simpatico.” The lack of authenticity in the dialogue may derive from the weak characters who never feel real. They never seem to be anything other than players in a drama who have a role to fulfill. The writing is poorly worded to the point where some sentences require multiple readings before becoming comprehensible. For instance” “he did not delude himself he would enjoy the protection he did from the trivial nuisance Isobel Jenks had become when that confrontation occurred.” A few more thats and a few less sentence modifiers tacked on would have helped me decipher that monstrosity.

In spite of those misgivings, I enjoyed The Memory of Trees. I’m becoming convinced that horror is one of the hardest genres to write. Scary is scary—anyone with a word processor can do it. But to create a horror novel with a well-established backstory and an ingenious vector of terror? Well that’s rare and should be applauded.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

2807199Blurb:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

Review:

Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.

I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.

Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.

Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.

But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.

3.5 out of 5 stars