Monthly Archives: May 2010

Angel Fire, by Andrew Greeley

Kind of continuing here with the theme of “expectations” that we bring to books … I’ve blogged recently about a new book I loved by an author I love, a book I didn’t expect to like but liked very much, and now … a book by an author I used to love, which disappointed me every bit as much as I expected it to.  This is going to be not so much a review of Angel Fire  as a rant about Why I’m So Over Andrew Greeley.

I started reading Greeley’s novels, beginning with Patience of a Saint, back in the late 80s, and for awhile I was a huge fan. His books — racy novels with racy covers, given that the author was a Catholic priest — did a lot for me when I was first exposed to them, particularly in the areas of understanding grace, appreciating the concept of God as a passionate lover, and opening my mind to feminine images of God.

Somewhere along the way, though, I fell out of love with Andrew Greeley. I thought it might be that his writing has actually gone downhill and gotten lazier, but Angel Fire changed my mind.  I haven’t read a Greeley novel in years, but I decided to try this since an online book club I usually participate in was reading it.  Worth another try, I thought.  Angel Fire, which tells the story of Nobel Prize winner Sean Desmond and his encounter with an alien life form who may just be an angel, was written in the late 80’s, the same era as Patience of a Saint.  After reading it, I’ve concluded Greeley’s writing didn’t go downhill in the 90’s and 00’s … it was just as bad back in the 80’s. When his ideas were fresh and new, the writing didn’t matter as much to me.  But his style is so cliche-driven that for me, prolonged exposure makes it intolerable.

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Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant

It’s a funny thing, the expectations we bring to books.  In the last post I blogged about a book I was eager yet almost scared to read, lest a favourite author let me down.  (Fortunately, there was no let-down). Then there’s the case where you build up some kind of prejudice that almost keeps you from picking up a book at all — which nearly happened to me with Come, Thou Tortoise.  I’m so glad I got past my expectations and gave this book a shot.

I didn’t know much about Come, Thou Tortoise, except that it was a first novel by a local author whose work I wasn’t familiar with, and that it was getting a lot of acclaim and attention.  I started taking notice when it beat out Michael Crummey’s Galore and Lisa Moore’s February for the Winterset award, because those are two pretty big names for a first-time novelist to topple, and Galore was my favourite novel of 2009. I could not believe that a book about some chick who talks to her turtle could possibly, possibly compete with a novel with the epic sweep and depth of Galore.

So I started to develop this prejudice against Tortoise, which only got worse as the book scooped up more awards.  Seriously, I said to myself, can this book be any good, or is it just this year’s trendy choice? Flipping through the first couple of pages in the bookstore didn’t grab me, and made me think that Grant’s lack of quotation marks (which you may remember is a pet peeve of mine in literary fiction) and question marks was just an attempt to hop on the latest literary bandwagon — in other words, that the book was all style, no substance.

WOW WAS I EVER WRONG ABOUT THAT.

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Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

It always seems such a long time between Guy Gavriel Kay novels. Nobody else measures up when it comes to writing fantasy. And when it turns out I’ve enjoyed his last few slightly less than his earlier works (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan are my favourite GGK books; The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel were both a bit disappointing to me), I have that crushing weight of expectation topped with the burden of fearing that maybe Kay is taking a different direction in his writing and I’m not going to love his next book as much.

To put it simply, Under Heaven had a lot to live up to, in my mind.

To put it even more simply, it totally lived up to expectations. And then some.

As with most of his recent novels, Kay has once again added fantasy touches to a world that’s essentially based on a real historical place and time.  In this case, the country in Under Heaven — Kitai — is closely modelled on eighth-century China. Writing fantasy with a historical basis allows him to use lots of material from that real place and time without having to stick slavishly to “what really happened” — and also allows him to insert nifty fantasy details like a character who shares his soul with a wolf due to a botched shamanic spell, or a near-fatal attack on a main character that’s averted by the timely intervention of ghosts.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

Lit, by Mary Karr

I’ve only just caught on to the fact that for someone like myself who devours memoirs avidly, it’s a bit odd not to have read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, a dysfunctional-childhood tale that many people credit with having kicked off the current explosion in tell-all personal memoirs.  I’m not sure how I missed it — I have heard of it, just never read it — or her follow-up book about adolescence, Cherry.  Somehow, the book I was moved to finally pick up and read (and I mean “pick up” in the sense of “pick it up in the bookstore, then go home and download it for the e-reader”) by Mary Karr was the third in her series of memoirs, Lit.

There’s no problem jumping in with book three, because Karr gives plenty of background about her early life.  Although she’s in her late teens and about to start college when the book opens, her traumatic upbringing as the child of two alcoholics is an ever-present backdrop to the story of her education, her marriage, the birth of her son, her struggles as a writer, and her own (almost inevitable, it feels) decline into alcoholism.

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Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin

In Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin brings to life the character of Alice Liddell, the little girl immortalized by Lewis Carroll (or Charles Dodgson, as she knew him) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Alice actually had quite an eventful life: she grew up as the dean’s daughter in an Oxford college, was befriended by the famous author whose hobby was photographing little girls, was (possibly) courted by Prince Leopold, son of Queen Victoria, and later married and lost two sons in World War One.  In her later years Alice made her living from her fame as Carroll’s muse, though, as Benjamin depicts her in this fine and engrossing novel, she always has an ambiguous relationship both with her fictional alter ego and with its creator, Dodgson/Carroll.

Benjamin does a wonderful job of getting inside Alice’s head, as well as believably recreating the world she lives in.  She takes historical mysteries, such as the circumstances under which Dodgson photographed seven-year-old Alice in a ragged gypsy dress, and the sudden break in Dodgson’s friendship with the Liddell family a few years later, and weaves plausible explanations that fit the characters as she has developed them. More than just fleshing out the “story behind the story,” she has created a story that is engaging and interesting in its own right.

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Waiting for Birdy, by Catherine Newman

I brought this book with me on a weekend getaway with my homegirls, the Strident Women, and I’m pretty sure everyone was annoyed with both me and Catherine Newman, because I COULD NOT STOP laughing out loud while reading, and reading paragraphs out loud to share with the others.  You know, that whole, “OK, I promise, this is the last one … I just have to read this bit!” phenomenon.  Yes. It’s that good.

I’d never read Newman’s babycenter.com blog, Bringing Up Ben and Birdy, though I had read a couple of her articles in O magazine and knew she was an insightful and sensitive writer. I wasn’t prepared for how funny she was. This is the most honest and funny parenting memoir since Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions — and, since Lamott only had one child, it’s the only parenting memoir I’ve read that offers a window into the tricky process of adding a second child to the already-full-time job of raising a toddler.

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Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost, by Matthew Paul Turner

This is one of those books that, given the title and subtitle, it would be practically impossible for me not to pick up and read.  Knowing that it’s by Matthew Paul Turner, author of churched and of the blog Jesus Needs New PR, made it even more of a must-read for me.

Hear No Evil is sort of a sequel to churched, picking up the story of Turner’s ultraconservative childhood in a rabidly independent Baptist church and continuing the tale through adolescence and young adulthood.  As the title suggests, music is used as a recurring theme throughout this memoir — specifically, Turner’s encounters with contemporary Christian music, beginning with a church background so rigid that even the blandest of Christian pop was taboo.  His story of the clandestine church outing to a Sandi Patty concert is hilarious — but probably more hilarious if you’ve actually lived and worshipped in that kind of environment (thankfully, I haven’t personally, but I’ve been exposed to more than enough Adventist craziness to find it totally believable).

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Urban Shaman, by C.E. Murphy

Joanne Walker — or Siobhan Walkingstick, to use a name she hasn’t used herself in many years — is flying in to her hometown of Seattle when she glimpses something from a plane that she shouldn’t be able to see — a woman on the ground, fleeing from danger towards an even greater danger.  Joanne, who up till now has been leading a fairly ordinary, if not terribly fulfilled, life, feels driven to do something, to save this woman. Upon landing she rushes off to finding a cab driver and tries to locate the woman based on landmarks seen from the air. 

Following an irrantional impulse to get involved, Joanne finds herself drawn into a series of bizarre events featuring a Celtic god, his rebellious demigod son, the Native American trickster Coyote, and her own unsuspected shamanic powers.

It’s a nice, original, fastpaced urban fantasy about a woman coming into her own powers.  There are some fresh, original characters, a hint of possible romance, and a plot that keeps the pages turning. The writing is a little formulaic at times, but Joanne’s narrative voice is strong and makes the book enjoyable to read.  Urban Shaman is the first in a series and the next time I’m looking for some good escapist fantasy I might check out the next in the series, since I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with this well-drawn and interesting characdter.

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Imperfect Birds, by Anne Lamott

I think I may have said somewhere before that Anne Lamott will always be my favourite writer of memoir.  Her three collections of essays on life and faith — Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually — along with her parenting memoir, Operating Instructions, and her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird – may well be my five favourite works of nonfiction in the whole wide world.  I’ve read only a couple of her novels, but they’ve never been quite as successful, either with the reading public generally or with me personally.

That said, I quite enjoyed Imperfect Birds. If I was reading it just as a novel I had picked up, rather than comparing it to Lamott’s nonfiction, I don’t think I’d have much to criticize at all, though for me it will never be in the same category as her memoirs.

Imperfect Birds continues the story begun in two of Lamott’ss earlier novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, but I found no difficulty jumping into this novel without having read the first two: it stands along well.  In this novel, Rosie is a seventeen-year-old about to begin her senior year of high school; her mother Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic and her stepfather James is an aspiring though not particuarly successful writer.

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