We’re well into fall and I’m still behind in my reviews of books I slogged through this summer.
Every night, exhausted from work and family, I fall into bed and stare at the ceiling, guilty that I haven’t saved you, my devoted, gentle reader(s) from picking up a book that looks interesting only to discover it’s crap.
Here are brief reviews of some of the crap. Hold your nose.
I wanted something of a thriller I could read in my backyard to the sound of trickling water from my pond as the sun set and Kate Hammer’s debut novel “The Girl in the Red Coat” had strong reviews.
A retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, this novel had a strong start, but fell apart after about 40 pages. Beth is a bitter woman whose ex-husband is moving on with a new woman. Their 8-year-old daughter Carmel (yeah, that’s right, Carmel), disappears while at a fair, taken away by the leader of a religious cult who seems to think she has special powers.
What could have been a tense novel of suspense, or even an interesting novel of psychological suspense, is destroyed by Hammer’s structure. She tells the story from Beth’s viewpoint and from Carmel’s in alternating chapters. The problem is, you can’t tell the voices apart. Any suspense about Carmel’s safety is lost because we know where she is and that she’s being (essentially) taken care of—by a crazy person, sure—but one who needs her. Beth’s growth into and through grief should have been more interesting, too.
After I stopped caring, I skimmed the book, hoping the two would be reunited, and to see how Hammer handled it. I won’t tell you what happens, because some of you might be masochists and want to read this. Because I’m handing out stars for my summer reading, I’ll give this 1 out of 5.
If you want to read a better book (not great, but much, much better) about a child who disappears, check out Ian McEwan’s heartbreaking and rewarding novel “The Child in Time.”
Colm Toibin disappointed me (and apparently only me) with his highly praised novel “Brooklyn,” but I was intrigued by the concept of his slim novel “The Testament of Mary.” (This novel was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize, just FYI.)
In it, Mary, the Virgin mother of God, recounts the agonizing last days of her son Jesus’ life. It’s told much later, near the end of her life, when a couple guys from Jesus’ old posse are stirring up lots of feelings she had buries because they’re writing about his life and they want to include her memories. Mary, bitter and alone, is not interested in sharing.
While he does a fantastic job recreating the political and personal tension of the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Toibin makes some odd choices. First, Mary doesn’t believe Jesus is the son of God. (This, despite being told the news by an angel when she was pregnant without having known man.) She doesn’t believe he performed any miracles—and spends time debunking them, actually—and seems to blame Jesus for his own death. This is a far cry from the Virgin in my mind of a docile woman, always wearing powder blue, and who submits wholly to God’s plan for her.
The Mary in Toibin’s “Testament” is fully human and completely understandable, but I like the other one better. Two stars out of five.
And now onto what may be the worst book I have ever read: Matthew Thomas’ “We Are Not Ourselves.”
First, let me say, I didn’t actually read this, I listened to it, unabridged, on audiobook. That’s 20 hours and 51 minutes. I listen to audiobooks to make my ride to and from work less tedious. This book did the opposite.
I’d heard great things about this novel. Strong reviews in newspapers, friends saying I’ve got to read it. And it looked like something I’d like: A story about the way our littlest choices shape our future. But, fuck me, was this boring.
Not at first, though. It’s the story of the life of everywoman Eileen Tumulty, raised by Irish immigrants. The early part of her life, though stained by alcoholism and her parent’s shaky marriage, is lyrical and touching and set me up for a huge disappointment.
When her parents leave the stage and Eileen is on her own, falling in love, becoming a mother, struggling with bills and relationships and illness, the novel becomes so unexpectedly dull that I had to keep listening. There had to be some unexpected treat coming that made otherwise smart people speak so rapturously about this book.
SPOILER ALERT: There isn’t. It’s a series of boring events that Eileen and her husband and later their son get through. Thomas finds every mundane thing that ever happened to anyone and stuffs them in this book and writes about them in boring ways then moves on, with the characters learning nothing from each incident.
Thomas writes long passages in which Eileen pays her bills, buys groceries, feeds her kid, cleans her floor, you know, all the crap we do every day before we turn to novels to take our mind off the boredom that comes from paying bills, buying groceries, feeding kids and cleaning floors. Add to that oddly placed details and events that you think will be meaningful, but go nowhere and you have the makings of a mess.
Maybe the structure of the novel was Thomas’ point: Life is exciting and entertaining when you’re young and DULL AS HELL when you grow up.
That, I don’t need. No stars. Complete crap.