Monday, June 21, 2010

Literary Fiction or Smut: What Do You Think?

It’s interesting when something new comes out and you only hear very good or very bad reviews. I’m fascinated by the lack of middle ground and this so very definite view of materials. I frequently find myself quoting the “love it or hate it” maxim when discussing new films and books and yet what does it really mean?

Recently, I found this to be particularly true about a much-touted novel, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. For the past year I have heard much about this novel. It was an Indie Pick and has been the center of many book club discussions, particularly after its January 2010 release in paperback. Several co-workers have also read, reviewed, and discussed the merits of this novel. Having looked at the premise seen here courtesy of the publisher (Algonquin Books) I found myself intrigued.

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for "a reliable wife." She responded, saying that she was "a simple, honest woman." She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow, able to take care of the one she truly loved. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own. And what neither anticipated was that they would fall so completely in love.

I always enjoy a good angst-filled love story and the thought of one with some literary merit was rather exciting. So, I picked it up one day and began reading…and reading…and reading. Now, this is not the sort of continuous reading that one might do when totally engrossed in the story, for instance how many of us read the final Harry Potter, unable to move from the couch because we were torn between never wanting the book to end and yet desperately needing to see how the series would end? No, this was more like the feeling you get when you pass a truly horrific accident, police, fire, paramedics, swarming the scene, flairs flickering brightly illuminating the shards of glass and blood spread across the black asphalt in an eerie design of power, pain, and death. In other words, a train wreck.

What had been touted as literary was actually to my eyes and mind a novel of such degradation, sexual escapades, and unreal, ridiculously over the top unbelievable and unlikable characters, that I had to literally question the sanity and tastes of my fellow readers. I am by no means a prude when it comes to my reading material; I have more trashy romance novels on my shelf than I would usually like to admit to, but the lengths to which this novel goes, while not more imaginative than many erotic romances, seemed to be far worse primarily because it was trying (and not unsuccessfully) to pass itself off as literary. This in itself is obscene. Remember the Gertrude Stein quote “a rose is a rose is a rose”? Well in this case we are much more in line with Hemingway’s “a rose is a rose is an onion” and this novel is most definitely an onion.

After finishing this novel, my eyes rolling dramatically in my head, a look I perfected as a teenager and laughed to find myself reverting to, I had to ask my co-workers what they really thought about this book. I was given two primary responses. The first being along the lines of “The prose was haunting and beautiful, the characters original, the writing strong, masterful, even.”

The other responses were immediate. “What trash! I couldn’t suspend belief enough to care about either the plot or the characters.” “It was pretty smutty. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop reading it. I just had to see how far this author would go.”

Love it. Hate it. No one I spoke with was in the middle. I had to agree with the haters. I thought the novel was pure drivel wrapped in illicit sex and a large vocabulary. I continued to read because I was curious about how much worse kit could get and because I kept getting an image in my head of little old ladies in a book group (yes I know most book groups are filled with members more between the ages of 30-50, than 75, but the older ones created the image in my head) sitting around a coffee table, wine or coffee in hand discussing the use of arsenic as a cure for erectile dysfunction as well as a way to get rid of an unwanted spouse. Hey why not kill two birds with one stone, you get your jollies and get rid of the old man at the same time.

Not a pleasant image. Not a pleasant book. Yet, there seems to be much appeal for readers across the nation. Personally, I think these ladies just want the erotic thrill of a smutty book nicely wrapped in the guise of “serious fiction”. I call it intellectual porn.

Come on ladies, fess up; you know it’s true.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

Another book by Stephenie Meyer. You would think that crowds of Twihards would be rushing to the store to pick up the latest from the reigning queen of vampires, but sadly this is not the case. Now, while I don’t want to classify myself as a Twihard (way too obsessive for me) I am a fan of the Twilight saga, have sat through the two disappointing films, and am one of the few who has actually purchased this new Eclipse-based novella. Why aren’t these books selling? Well, it could be that it is a mere 192 pages, and anyone who has read the series knows the ending. Actually, even if you haven’t read the series you know the ending, gasp… Bree dies. Don’t get mad at me if you haven’t figured that out yet, I mean hello, it’s in the title. Really, it’s most likely because the author has posted the book for free at Now don’t get too excited, the book is only available online until July 5th, you can’t download it, and you cannot print it. That’s nice, but not exactly what I as a Twilight saga fan want to hear and certainly not what I want to hear as a representative of an independent bookstore. No, I want a copy for my library. You know, to complete my shelf of Stephenie Meyer. You can’t do that with a digital version that you can’t even save to disk. So why aren’t fans picking up on this?

For starters The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is such a small piece of the Twilight puzzle that setting it up on it’s own doesn’t really work. It would have been much better to include in some compendium or a large and extravagant Twilight encyclopedia. This would give it more meat and put the story within context of the series. Instead, this story seems to have arrived from nowhere and is quickly floating off into the distant world of “who cares” and “why bother”.

This is unfortunate because the story is interesting, providing a whole new way to see the characters of Twilight. While it’s a quick and easy read, it provided a little bit of new insight to what was actually my least favorite books of the series and it got me a bit more excited for the movie (yes, even though the first two films were abysmal, I will go see Eclipse, let’s hope the third time is the charm). I thought I was done with the series, but Bree Tanner reminded me (just a little) why I enjoyed it in the first place. Now, whenever it is that I decide to reread the series (and I will) I am happy to have this little nugget on the shelf adding to my reading enjoyment. And if you just read it for free online you miss that.

So, will sales pick-up? Yes, I think so. I think fans are reading it online right now, but after July 5th (just a few days past the film release) these fans are going to remember that The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is a book, not just a web-post, and then they will come-and they will buy.

Just a note, one dollar from each book purchased goes to The Red Cross, so not only are you expanded your Twilight palette, but also contributing to a worthy organization.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Penguin Five: The Eternal Ones

The Eternal Ones
By Kirsten Miller
Release Date: August 10, 2010

I’ve delayed on writing this review for a week. I needed to sit back and let the story, the characters, the concept, the writing-all of it, sink in before I could adequately explain my thoughts on this novel. It’s hard to read a book that has its entirety based upon on a concept you don’t believe in. I’m not talking about fantasy or science fiction, within the depths of those novels it is easy to become lost because it is not real, and all, but perhaps a few people who are way too into Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, realize that and thus it is possible to suspend disbelief. Yet, reincarnation, which is the backbone of this new novel, is believed to be real by many people and is a major part of quite a few non-Christian based religions. I won’t go into why I disagree wholeheartedly with this concept, this isn’t that type of blog, but suffice it to say I do not believe in reincarnation.

So, here I am with a book whose main premise is two souls, two lovers fated to meet each other in life after life and doomed to early demise. In order to thoughtfully and unbiasedly review this book I needed to put my personal feelings and beliefs aside and read The Eternal Ones as though I were a blank, thoughtless vessel ready to be entertained. I believe I succeeded. I looked at the book as a love story, one where its characters are thrown into situations of unreality and despair, much like archetype ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra. I soaked in the atmosphere, the dialogue, and the characters and opened myself up to enjoyment. I found some too. I found the story to be engrossing enough that I continued to read. I wanted to know the ending and discover the journey to that end. One hurdle was accomplished; I was hooked to the story. Sadly, that was all that happened. While I was intrigued, I was not particularly drawn to the characters, they appeared rather idiotic, brash, and not remarkably likeable. The story, while engaging, was littered with holes, some which were vaguely filled by either the author or astuteness as a reader, others so wide and dull, that not even the largest of cement trucks could fill them in. There was also a great deal of predictability. Even before a certain character was introduced I knew that he would appear, who he would be, and how his manipulations would drive the story. I don’t mind figuring out the plot, I do it frequently when reading mysteries, but some degree of finesse is always a must-have and here it was greatly lacking.

Some might enjoy this haunting little tale, but readers with any sort of cognition will be disappointed. Let us hope that the last book from the Penguin Five, Sapphique by Catherine Fisher is more satisfying.