Monday, February 24, 2014

The Forever Girl, with one big huge spoiler.

Erudite Mondays at Half Soled Boots
Volume 13 Number 2

by Alexander McCall Smith

I really wanted to love this book.

In the end, I'm not even sure I like it.

This is the first Alexander McCall Smith book I have read (he of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency") so I don't know how it compares, but I was favourably impressed by his style. It has a certain distance from the reader...I didn't feel as if I was walking in their shoes, or sitting in their living rooms: I felt I was hovering over their houses, detached from the characters, their situations, and even from the passage of time. Sometimes you want to be right in the thick of the narrative, feeling what the characters feel, and sometimes you want to experience the story with a little more elegance.

It started out so well. The author announces, right on the first page, that the novel is about unrequited love. He claims to be exploring this idea that there is no "one person" to whom we are bound, and with whom, if we can only find them, we will have a complete life - will be a whole person.

90% of the novel works to support this premise. The characters circle each other in a decades-long dance of attraction and repulsion, while we await further developments. Time flies in this book: one turns a page, and find that years have passed. Over the course of the novel, the reader comes to believe that He does not love Her - this has the undeniable ring of truth and the undeniable proof of events, dialogue, even body language. All the choices the male character makes are away from the girl who loves him.

Just as one is thinking "well, that's the meaning of 'unrequited'", a curve ball arrives. Suddenly, literally on the last two or three pages of the book, the author does a complete 180, and has his annoying leading man (up until now the wishy-washiest of noncommittal losers) suddenly declare undying and forever love for the woman who has waited all this time for him to realize her existence.

What the heck?

In one fell swoop (or "foul sweep", as I see on the internet constantly), all the credibility disappears. The author's whole point, everything he has been working towards, the evidence of the reader's own experience, is chucked out in order to provide a pat happy ending.

The events of the story, the characters themselves, just don't support this conclusion. I'm left wondering whether the author had originally intended a very different ending than the one he actually wrote. Nine times out of ten, life just doesn't turn out like that: the letter doesn't get delivered in time, the prince finds someone else who fits the glass slipper, and young starry-eyed women, formerly models of constancy, get tired of waiting on balconies for their clueless, idealized lovers, and marry the grocer just so they can get on with it.

I expect this novel will do well on the shelves of local drugstores, so people can pick up a copy while they are getting sunscreen and flip flops on their way to the beach. It's just the kind of thing people like to read to distract themselves momentarily while working on their base tan, or waiting in the middle school parking lot. I know this kind of book sells well, but in my opinion the ending undermined both the novel's premise, and the reader's investment in the characters. With the Disneyfied conclusion, the whole thing became forgettable.

Reread? No.
Recommend to Others? No.
Bookplate? No.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Love is a Decision - Part 2

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for my daughter at the barn. She had been there all day in the pouring rain and freezing cold. Three minutes of it was enough for me, then I picked up a broom to sweep the aisleways, simply as a way to keep warm.

Sweeping, vacuuming, and ironing - these three household tasks seem harmless in themselves, but surprisingly often I find they lead to sudden revelations and deep thoughts.

So there I was, vigorously sweeping up dried manure, bits of straw, and plenty of dirt, when my mind went, as it so often does, to the next item on my to-do list for the day.

"Dinner," I thought grimly.

From there I launched into a lightning-fast spiral of grouchiness and resentment, which looked a little something like this.

I fecking hate dinner.
It comes around every day.
Why do I have to do it every day?
Why can't somebody else cook?
It's not as if they appreciate all the work I do.
Why aren't they happy with sandwiches?
I'd be happy with sandwiches.
I fecking hate dinner.
If it was payday, I'd order out.
I haven't even taken anything out of the freezer.
Do I even have anything IN the freezer?
I HATE dinner.
It comes around EVERY DAMNED DAY.
So WHY am I always unprepared for it?!

Nothing new, but this time, since I was sweeping the barn, it all became perfectly clear.

I'm always unprepared because I hate dinner, because I am always unprepared, because I HATE DINNER.

But...that can't be right -- I LOVE, I love, oh I love dinner. I love eating and I'm a good cook.

Wherein lies this paradox? What isn't lining up?

The love.

It's all about the love, folks.

I've got to expand the eating-love backwards to encompass the cooking, prepping and planning, and forwards to encompass the kitchen-cleaning.

By the end of the year, this negative and repetitive part of my thinking will all be in the past. From now on, my goal is to love dinner. And how am I going to get there? By loving dinner.

I love dinner!

I love planning it, making it, eating it and yes, I even love cleaning up after it.

Think of this: cooking is the one area in my home life where I am expected and encouraged to be creative every single day, and where I don't have to feel guilty for spending lots of money on the materials!

Dinner is the only central meal the entire family eats together. Mr HSB is at work long before the girls and I are even awake. Lunch is a scrambled hodgepodge of eat-what-you-can-find-whenever-you-get-hungry. But dinner?

Dinner is the daily main event - the only event - where we are all together and focussed on the same thing.

Here's what I'm NOT doing. I'm not becoming an obsessive meal planner. I'm not resolving to stick to a budget. I'm not vowing never to give my family sandwiches.

Here's what I AM doing.

I'm smiling - physically smiling - whenever I think of the evening meal. "Maybe I'll make that soup again," I think to myself, and then I smile. What makes me smile?

I make me smile.

I just lift my eyebrows and push the corners of my mouth back and smile. And it lifts my mood, and makes me happy, and it won't take long for my whole outlook to change. I'm preparing an answer in my head for when my family asks me "What's for supper?", which is a question that used to make me absolutely furious. And I'm giving myself a break and accepting that frozen corn is a perfectly relevant vegetable that can make my life way easier, rather than being a source of guilt and self-reproach.

And unexpectedly, my life has been flooded with good and yummy things.

Like homemade baguette!

Who needs butter when the winter sun is shining through the kitchen window?

That sounds like a metaphor. Or at least a proverb.

Go! Love your dinner!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Red Rising

by Pierce Brown

Whew! This is a gritty one, as YA novels go.

The premise will be a little familiar, especially if you've read The Hunger Games, Divergent, or even the classic Ender series. It's a terrible time for mankind, some unnamed distance into the future. We've burned the planet out and have had to colonise other places in the solar system. Following the obligatory civil war, which the reader takes to be not far distant from this present moment in time, humans stratified themselves to make survival possible (based on colours - so "Red" at the bottom, the menial worker class, "Gold" at the top). The strata system proving useful to those in overlordship, it was kept long after its necessity had passed.

The Reds grind their lives away underground on Mars, mining helium to enable the terraforming of the planet before it can accept colonists from Earth. The Golds drop by every now and then to remind their labour force, primarily through bloodshed, horror, and the ruthless weight of their domination, of just Who is Boss...there's a strong whiff of President Snow and Panem, here; only without the roses and the pretences at urbanity.

So. Now we have the oppressed, the oppressors, and the middle classes who facilitate the oppression. The Reds are getting a little tired of endless backbreaking labour, the lash of their masters' whips, and the general hopelessness of their people's condition...the time is ripe for a revolt.


It might sound as if I'm criticising this novel, in my comparisons to The Hunger Games, specifically, and Sci Fi Young Adult genre as a whole (Ender's Game is a classic example). In fact, I absolutely loved this book. It DOES compare to the Hunger Games, inevitably, not least because there is actually a war game in which the young people - in the form of recruits to an elite academy for the ruling classes - are placed into an engineered landscape and observed as they kill each other. The novel is written in the same tense, too - the "historical present", that cliff-hanging, fast-paced, unflinching form that keeps you reading long after your contacts dry out.

Despite similarities, the subject matter is handled with much more bloodshed than in THG. I found that Suzanne Collins stopped short of the full scope of violence and mayhem that she could have unleashed, often taking a kinder, less brutal narrative path. Pierce Brown does not pull these punches. The killing starts almost at once, and continues right to the last few pages of the book. Hard decisions are made - not hard decisions like "I think I love Gale but I have to kiss Peeta to stay alive".

A few quick warnings - "Young Adult" it technically may be, but I would not have wanted to accidentally pick this up at the age of 14. It is very bloody. The violence is pretty relentless. There is (off-stage) rape, (on-stage) prostitution and sex slavery, and lots of swearing (some of it book-specific: I got very tired of that one catchword, "bloodydamn").

I got to read The Hunger Games Trilogy in one straight shot, over a single weekend. Unfortunately, now that I've devoured "Red Rising" in one sitting, I've probably got a terribly long time to wait until the next book comes out. I'll pick it up as soon as it is released - I can't wait to have more of this series.

Reread? YES
Give to Others? Yes
Bookplate? Yes