Friday, August 9, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading: August 8, 2013

I’m all over the board this week. From teen fiction, to a classic Hollywood bio, to picture books—I’m in full ADD reader mode and in desperate need of a really good book. Maybe one of the legions of books on my desk will lift my reading spirits next week, but for now here is what has been gracing my nightstand as of late.

Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang (available now)
This is a first for me, a picture book review. I don’t often have occasion to read picture books (unless my younger nephews are around, and then hello!), but I came across this one and had to mention it. Mustache Baby is a crack-up, perfect for kids ages 2-5, mostly boys. It follows the creative antics of a little baby born with a mustache. Is it a good mustache, and bad one, the mustache of a hero or villain? All will be explored in this delightfully entertaining book. It’s a quick one, and will give the parents reading it a nice chuckle. This is a really great new book for toddlers.

Lucid by Adrienne Stoltz and Ron Bass (available now)
Screenwriters Stoltz and Bass (he’s an Academy Award Winner) teamed up to create Lucid, a YA novel that runs the gamut of psychological study, coming-of-age, romance, and flirts with the paranormal. Here’s the publisher description:
“What if you could dream your way into a different life? What if you could choose to live that life forever? Sloane and Maggie have never met. Sloane is a straight-A student with a big and loving family. Maggie lives a glamorously independent life as an up-and-coming actress in New York. The two girls couldn't be more different--except for one thing. They share a secret that they can't tell a soul. At night, they dream that they're each other. The deeper they're pulled into the promise of their own lives, the more their worlds begin to blur dangerously together. Before long, Sloane and Maggie can no longer tell which life is real and which is just a dream. They realize that eventually they will have to choose one life to wake up to, or risk spiraling into insanity. But that means giving up one world, one love, and one self, forever…”

The plot was interesting to me. Which girl was real? Was there a parallel universe? Was it all a demented dream from someone confined in an institution? Those questions alone had me picking this one up (that, and I was cleaning off my desk and noticed the book had been there over a year –came out October 2012). Sadly, the book just doesn’t deliver. It’s primarily a look at each girl’s life, alternating each chapter between them. Each girl has suffered a severe loss; Maggie her father and Sloane her best friend, and each girl is dealing with a potential new relationship; so as a coming-of-age type book it’s not too bad, if a little cliché. The added element of the dreams should spruce up the otherwise bland tale, but instead it is miss-handled. The first three-quarters of the book deal with the issue subtly, with each girl mentioning the issue or the other girl’s day (Maggie is in therapy), but there is no real urgency. Then all of a sudden, in the last 30 pages or so there is this deep psychological breakdown. A sudden drop into madness that might work in a visual presentation (the book is loftily compared to Inception—balderdash), but in a written medium, does not work. The girls’ worlds start to collide and infiltrate each other. A cool idea, but it happens too late, and is difficult to convey effectively with words. Instead, I kept rereading to try and figure out where I was, and who’s voice I was listening too (not a bad effect, but the writing isn’t good enough to fully commit). It was too jumbled, trying too hard to be cool and edgy. The ending was also irritating. It is one of those ambiguous endings (Inception again), but instead of the enjoyment of actually using my brain to process the book, I was a little disgusted by the lack of finesse. This is a screenwriter’s book—maybe it would make a better movie, but the visual cuts that are implied are a filmmaker’s tools, and don’t translate into a teen book. This was an unstructured mess that tried to be hip, but failed miserably.

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner (available now)
There was a time when I exclusively read classic Hollywood biographies. Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations many months ago I was intrigued. Fast forward about 6 months, to when I actually picked the book up of my shelf and started reading. The writing was candid, the book really exactly what it says is it; conversations between Ava Gardner and Peter Evans; and despite the fact that I’m not a huge Gardner fan; I was quickly drawn to the language (foul) and the seductress that was Ava Gardner. Originally, Evans was supposed to have been writing Gardner’s autobiography, which is how these conversations got to be recorded and how Evans very personal and insightful notes were put together, but Gardner pulled out suddenly and Evans moved on to other projects. Years after her death and a rather innocuous autobiography that Gardner did with another author (oddly enough, one I actually own), Evans decided to put together these really interesting interviews and publish them. Sadly, Peter Evans died before they could be published, but what has been culled together is unbelievably readable, and really fascinating. Gardner comes across as both brash, and unsure; seductive, and yet conscious of her partially paralyzed face (she suffered a massive stroke). She was a blazing alcoholic, manipulative, cursed like a trucker, and yet in the brief and somewhat scattered conversations, she still displays the glamour and cunning that appealed to moviegoers in the golden age of Hollywood. The book certainly put a new spin on the actress, causing me to see her in a very different light; but most of all it entertained me because it was like no other biography I had ever read before. Candid and (seemingly) unedited, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is a fresh style of biography, lacking chronology or structure for sure, but mesmerizing in its ability to so perfectly capture its subject. A great read for movie fans.
Natalie Wood, Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth; I’ve read more than I can’t count, and for the most part enjoyed them. I still have all those bios, but haven’t picked one up in quite some time. Yet, when I came across

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (available now)
The Longings of Wayward Girls is a novel that follows a woman named Sadie Watkins. Switching back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000’s, the book focuses on a precocious 12-year-old Sadie coping with a troubled mother and a mean streak that leads her to play a harmful prank on another young girl, and her thirty-something self as she struggles with emotional instability and adultery. The book is supposed to be a novel of suspense, as it slowly delves into a 1974 disappearance of a little girl Sadie’s mean girl antics with another girl who also goes missing, and her modern day affair with a man from her childhood; but in reality it is a slow moving portrait of a girl whose fragile and tragically flawed mother shaped her into her current psychological state. I’m not yet done with this book, but I am well over half way through, and am still waiting for something of substance to happen. It is slow going. Author Brown capably paints a portrait to small town New England, complete with the types of subplots that must occur in every seemingly idyllic community (straying husbands, alcoholism, neighborhood events and barbecues, precocious woman-child’s on the prowl), but the appeal of the novel ends there. I know that there is this big upheaval currently in regards to character likeability. Some critics have been outraged that bad reviews are given because a character is unlikeable, but I’m going to go there with this book. Sadie is downright unlikeable. Yes, she has had her tragedies, but she pushed on through life with selfish and narcissistic abandon, using her personal tragedies as an excuse to act without thought or caution. The novel is about Sadies and I can’t stand the woman. I don’t think that you have to love or even like a character for a novel to be good. I didn’t love Holden Caulfield, or at times Katniss Everdeen, but Catcher in the Rye and The Hunger Games are still great books. Sadie Watkins and The Longings of Wayward Girls are just not that compelling; and Sadie’s actions are despicable. This has been a disappointing and boring read, one I wish hadn’t started.

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