The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: A-

From the back cover:
Margaret Lea, a bookseller’s daughter whose own past is a mystery, is contacted by Vida Winter, a venerated author renowned for her secrecy.

Vida has always been reclusive, publishing popular “autobiographies” that are anything but the truth. Now, Vida is nearing death, and she wants to tell her last tale—the notoriously missing 13th tale—before her time comes. Struck by curious parallels to her own life story, Margaret agrees to help Vida and reveal the truth. Travelling to an aging and haunted estate, Margaret is unprepared for the heartache that will accompany Vida’s deepest secrets—and what they will reveal about her own past.

I checked this book out with great trepidation. Having seen it hyped in several mainstream places, I was obviously skeptical about its merits, even though the premise sounded like an interesting one. I in no way expected to like it as much as I did.

Good stuff: The Thirteenth Tale references Jane Eyre quite a bit, and it is reminiscent of that story, but it also reminded me strongly of Rebecca. Familiar elements include spooky presences, derelict old houses to explore, strange and creepy families, and dour housekeepers. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and often surprising.

Not so good stuff: One plot twist that was probably supposed to be a surprise was easy to predict. Margaret is sometimes irritating, and her narration was a lot less interesting than Vida’s story. The ending was also a bit drawn out, but it also wrapped things up thoroughly.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The unabridged audiobook from Recorded Books is particularly good, and I think helped to create a storytelling vibe.

A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks: D

From the back cover:
Class of ’59 high school senior Landon Carter spends his time trying to stay out of trouble in the small town of Beaufort, North Carolina. The last person he’d ever fall for is quiet Jamie Sullivan, the Baptist minister’s daughter. But when he waits too long to get a date for the homecoming dance, she’s the only one left to ask. While his friends make jokes about the unlikely couple, he decides this will be their first and last date.

But Jamie has a way of shaking up his plans, and Landon’s life goes down a path he never dreamed possible.

This was my first book by Nicholas Sparks, and it will be my last. I was rolling my eyes so strenuously on page xi of the Prologue that I thought I was going to hurt something. Things were a bit better once the story got underway, but I never laughed or cried, as the Prologue informed me that I would. Yes, Jamie has a secret. And yes, it’s completely obvious within the first fifty pages. Was I supposed to be stunned by the big reveal later on?

Mostly, this is the tale of TypicalTeen and how he is ashamed to be seen publicly with ReligiousGirl until ReligiousGirl appears in a play with her hair down and TypicalTeen suddenly realizes that she’s pretty and that he’s in love with her. ReligiousGirl carries her Bible everywhere, saves wounded animals, volunteers with orphans, never has a harsh word for anyone, and is unbelievably socially obtuse. TypicalTeen engages in such behavior as slacking in class, hanging out at the diner with the stereotypes he’s been given for friends, eating boiled peanuts in graveyards, and experiencing guilt for all the times he mocked ReligiousGirl and her father. This was all bland and cardboard, and utterly failed to elicit any emotion from me at all.

The laughably bad bits, however, are when TypicalTeen and ReligiousGirl start reading the Bible together. It is not at all my intent to mock religion; I simply take exception with the writing here. These passages gave off the vibe of someone writing about something they don’t know. It’s like someone saying, “And we sat together and watched a lot of Star Trek. And sometimes when we were watching Star Trek we would ask each other what we thought about that episode of Star Trek and what Star Trek really meant.” Dude couldn’t do any research?

To make this all worse, the narrator on the audiobook (Frank Muller) read in the most pretentious way imaginable. The final word of every sentence was elongated and very nearly whispered. It was so bad I had to play it for my cubicle mate so we could mock it.

Concluding on a completely random note, A Walk to Remember mentions hush puppies no fewer than three times. Thanks for sticking me with a craving, CrappyWriter.

Light in August by William Faulkner: B

From the back cover:
Light in August is one of the most brilliantly conceived, cleanly structured, and efficiently expressed novels in the Faulkner canon.

With the timing, climax, and resolution of a great symphony, Faulkner’s seventh novel is a eulogy to the outsider: Lena Grove, a guileless pregnant woman who walks from Alabama to Mississippi in search of the father of her unborn child; Gail Hightower, whose romance with the past sent his wife to her grave; Joanna Burden, a middle-aged woman ostracized from her Southern neighbors; and Joe Christmas, a tortured young man of mixed ancestry whose isolation escalates to homicidal rage.

It is Joe Christmas’ story that frames the novel. With its dramatic back-trackings into Joe’s troubled past, Light in August rushes the reader like flooding water to an unexpected and inspired conclusion. As Joe fulfills his own destiny, he in turn plays out the doom of the South.

I admire the insight and pure craft that went into the writing of Light in August, even as I have complaints about the plot and the intrusive narrative voice. Faulker paints a vivid picture of the time and environment of the story, with an excellent way of pointing out the sorts of things we all notice subconsciously and bringing them to light with perfect clarity. That’s precisely the sort of thing a good writer should do, and I can see why he is revered and remembered.

In and of itself, this would be wonderful, except the result is that each of the characters ends up with essentially the same inner voice. Beyond that, I have trouble believing, for example, that an employee of a planing mill in a dinky little town in 1930s Mississippi would look at his elderly friend’s nose and thoughtfully, consciously compare it to a flag flying above a ruined fort.

The plot itself is slow-moving, and if trimmed of stream of consciousness, this novel would probably be about one third its current length. For the most part, these excursions are comprehensible, but there were a couple of occasions where I had to give up on grasping the meaning of a passage. Here’s an example:

“She has no mother because fatherblood hates with love and pride, but motherblood with hate loves and cohabits.”

Ultimately, I liked this book, though it took time and effort to complete. I am not sure that “enjoy” is the right word for the experience of reading Light in August, but it definitely leaves an impact.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles: B

From the back cover:
Set in an exclusive boys’ school in the summer of ’42, A Separate Peace offers a quietly told story of the relationship between two boys. Under the surface though, violent thoughts and feelings lurk, mirroring events in the outside world. It is these deeper levels of meaning that have made the novel an enduring classic of American literature.

Through the adolescent eyes of Gene, an introverted intellectual, we are shown the world of the Devon School. The campus and its residents appear to be untouched by the realities of war. Phineas, a charismatic daredevil athlete, embodies a careless optimism as he leads the boys in seemingly innocent games. Schoolboy capers, though, turn dark, and perhaps inevitably, the war slowly permeates the boys’ lives.

I remembered really liking this whatever year that was I was required to read it for school, but now I have mixed feelings.

The crux of the problem is that I don’t particularly like either Gene or Phineas. Gene initially comes across as borderline nutso, obsessively in love with Phineas and always comparing himself against him and suspecting Phineas of plotting against him. He even dons his clothes at one point in a very The Talented Mr. Ripley moment. Phineas is genial enough, and I like him better as the story progresses, but he’s one of those playful manipulator types who goad non-troublemaking sorts into participating in their activities, and I find those people irritating.

Eventually, though, one begins to think maybe Gene isn’t crazy, but a typical mixed-up stupid teen driven by impulses he doesn’t understand. Maybe he’s just the product of the competitive atmosphere of an all-boys’ school, where no one wants to be caught out falling for a trick, where everyone is always on guard and suspicious of sincerity lest they lose face with the rest of the group.

Soon, some of their classmates begin to change as they confront the reality of the war in their lives, a fact they’d been able to deny in the summer when they were still sixteen. All this sounds pretty good, but this is also right around where things began to drag for me. It was also hard to believe all these kids were so gung-ho to be involved with the war, but maybe that’s realistic behavior for “the greatest generation.”

But hey, bonus points for slashiness! Take this lovely passage, for instance:

Finny was right. And there was only one way to show him this. I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn’t ask for anything better.

To Kill a Mockinbird by Harper Lee: A+

From the back cover:
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill a Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. This regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

This is such a lovely book, full of spots that make me sniffly and full of real and vibrant characters, including children who are not idealized or always loveable. I like Scout and Jem a lot, but my heart really belongs to Atticus. Mild guys trying to be good fathers just tug my heartstrings, I suppose.

To Kill a Mockingbird deals with the difficult subject of a black man accused of a crime by a white woman and her father, and its impact on a community, in a way that is understated and illuminating. Very seldom does the story veer into territory that could be considered preachy.

It’s so much more than that, though. It’s about justice and human decency, the definition of real courage, the Finch children seeing their father in a new light, the limitations of small-mindedness, childhood innocence, and learning to put oneself in another’s shoes. Most highly recommended.

Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe: A-

From the back cover:
With wonderful delicacy and subtle insight and intimation, McCabe creates Mr. Patrick “Puss” Braden, the enduringly and endearingly hopeful hero(ine) whose gutsy survival and yearning quest for love resonate in and drive the glimmering, agonizing narrative in which the Troubles are a distant and immediate echo and refrain.

Twenty years ago, her ladyship escaped her hometown of Tyreelin, Ireland, fleeing her foster mother Whiskers—prodigious Guinness-guzzler, human chimney—and her mad household, to begin a new life in London. There, in blousey tops and satin miniskirts, she plies her trade, often risking life and limb amongst the flotsam and jetsam that fill the bars of Piccadilly Circus. But suave businessmen and lonely old women are not the only dangers that threaten Puss. It is the 1970s and fear haunts the streets of London and Belfast as the critical mass of history builds up, and Puss is inevitably drawn into a maelstrom of violence and tragedy destined to blow his fragile soul asunder.

Note: Patrick’s nickname actually has a ‘y’ on the end. It’s been changed here to avoid getting lumped in with any naughty stuff filters my employer might have in their arsenal.

I listened to the unabridged audio of this, read by the author. I highly recommend it. In addition to wonderful Irish and English accents, who better to properly interpret the speech mannerisms of Puss, which are integral to this particular character? She mixes gleeful naughty bits (which I might’ve found gross were they not said with endearing silliness) with old-fashioned turns of phrase (ex: ‘When words with Charlie on the phone she did swap…’) to create a lilting, storytelling style.

Puss does quite a few dumb things in the course of the stories she relates, which she fully admits, but she’s so incredibly easy to sympathize with, it doesn’t get annoying. Mostly, it’s just relentlessly sad. I did find it a little hard to pinpoint a timeline for a while, since some elements are told out of sequence, but happily report that it’s clear by the end.

If you’re looking for a titillating book about cross-dressing, this isn’t it. It’s more about the search for warm family love and a place to belong than anything else. All the IRA stuff takes a definite back seat to this more basic concern.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: A

From the back of the book:
In the first chapter of this haunting novel, 14-year-old Susie Salmon looks down from heaven and describes the horrifying events of her murder. As time goes on, Susie continues her curious observations while her family struggles to cope with the pain of her death. Her younger sister grows tougher and more mature, her mother goes to desperate lengths to ease the suffering, and her father begins a perilous quest to bring the killer to justice.

This book starts out absolutely stunningly. Susie’s murder and the aftermath progress evenly and fascinatingly for about a year after her death. After that time, however, events speed up and soon whole years are glossed over within a sentence. It became a real “Drop in on X and see where they are now. Okay, next character!” cycle. And it isn’t that these little snapshots weren’t interesting; it just really felt rushed.

Thankfully, this doesn’t last too very long before the story wraps up in a more linear fashion. The ending may be a bit too tidy for some, I suppose, but I loved it. The author manages to be thoughtful and evoke imagery without being pretentious or writing so densely as to require strong effort to decode for meaning.

The Lovely Bones is unique, a trifle flawed, but wholly unforgettable. I’ll remember this story for a long time.

Possession by A. S. Byatt: A

From the back cover:
Roland Michell, a young academic assistant, has devoted his life to studying the life and works of 19th century writer Randolph Henry Ash. One day in the library, Roland opens a dusty volume and finds a provocative letter written by Ash to an unnamed woman. From that moment, Roland begins a quest for information about this mysterious person. His search will take him into the domain of Dr. Maud Bailey, a beautiful, keenly intelligent, and fiercely independent scholar. What they will discover is an unusual and unconventional love story that echoes through their own lives.

I am not a poetry fan. I only like it if I can understand it with minimal interpretation, if it doesn’t hinge on some allusion or symbolism that is absolutely impenetrable to me. There is an awful lot of poetry in Possession, and also writing about poetry, and about the way a poet sees the world. The correspondence between Ash and his unnamed woman is full of such references, and the fact that the two of them could understand and share these conversations is why they formed their special bond. Alas, the reader is somewhat alienated here. I recognize that these things made sense to and were relevant to them but I didn’t always fully fathom what they were getting at, and that was frustrating. Most of the included poems, however, are quite accessible and I found that I liked them a great deal more than I would have expected, particularly “Swammerdam,” which is about this guy.

The rest of the tale, the modern scholars who are trying to uncover what happened, their scholarly competition who are sniffing about trying to find out what Roland has discovered, and the actual interaction between Ash and the poetess, is in plain prose narrative, and unravels as quite the mystery, almost a kind of literary chase at the end. Throughout the book, modern scholars discover further letters, journals, etc., and not everyone has access to what the others have found. I liked most of these, but towards the end I was getting a little weary. “Okay, here’s some really long excerpt from a book by some supposed spiritual medium ranting about how Ash once exposed the trickery of her seance. Does it have to be six pages long?!”

Still, the sense of going from clue to clue, random small discovery leading to big information that clarifies what was unclear before, is a lot of fun. The deftness with which this is all handled, and the subtlety of some evolutions of relationships, makes this a satisfying, thoughtful, and surprisingly easy read. Highly recommended.

The Morning Star by Nick Bantock: D

From the inside flap:
Plunged into an otherworldly maze, Matthew Sedon and Isabella de Reims are stretched to the limits of love, of certainty, and of their belief in the powerful guidance of Griffin and Sabine. Isabella is drawn into her predestined journey to Egypt, a journey that forces her to explore a world beyond her imagination. In Alexandria, challenging his deepest fears, Matthew makes his own compelling discoveries in the fertile fields of both archaeology and the human heart.

In The Morning Star, the mystery that began with an enigmatic postcard from Sabine Strohem to Griffin Moss reaches its dramatic conclusion.

Lie! It does not reach a dramatic conclusion! It reaches an enigmatic one, with nothing more clarified than before, though I still believe I’m right about the MPD theory.

Anyway, I sum up the book thusly (warning, spoilery):

Griffin-personality: Isabella, go see Matthew. But be sure to mosey.
Isabella-personality: Matthew, I’m gonna mosey your way.
Matthew-personality: (to Isabella) Rock on! Btw, I totally love you. (to Sabine) Hey, I snuck in and felt up the funky statue. It had an orb on its head.
Sabine-personality: That’s the Morning Star. It somehow represents the different planes we all exist on. Or something. Watch out for sneaky personality.
Matthew-personality: (to Isabella) I can now draw like Sabine. Wanna draw you nekkid!
Isabella-personality: (to Griffin) Hey dude, check out my completely wacked out vision where I munch on some flowers.
Matthew-personality: (to Sabine) I’m bored. No chicks to bang and sneaky personality dude got my dig shut down.
Griffin-personality: (to Isabella) Good job moving slow. Follow the cat.
Isabella-personality: (to Matthew) Hey, sneaky personality sent some thugs after me but samurai protector dude vanquished them. I love U 2 OMG! I’m totally gonna put out next time I see you.
Matthew-personality: (to Isabella) OMG, I get to sexx0r a badass. I’m not worthy.
Sabine-personality: (to Matthew) One time I went into a waterfall nekkid. And you totally need to chill about this “not worthy” thing.
Matthew-personality: (to Sabine) I went out and dug a hole to make sneaky personality think I’m up to something.
Isabella-personality: (to Griffin) This time I had a vision where I’m riding on a cat amidst a war of birds. OK, bye~!
Griffin-personality: (to Isabella) I think everyone shares the same dream. Keep following the cat. Btw, hope you like this postcard with the chicken watching some chick get groped by a disembodied blue hand alongside a snippet of a chinese checkers board.
Matthew-personality: (to Isabella) Sneaky personality accosted me about the statue or something. I totally still love you and all these body parts (see attached list).
Isabella-personality: (to Matthew) I feel sorry for the Minotaur. The wind smells like you.
Griffin-personality: (to Isabella) OK, cease moseying! Get thee hence to Egypt!
Matthew-personality: (to Isabella) Hey, I think we might not be real, but we’re all in that one dude’s head like swanjun totally thinks is the case. Oh, p.s., I love you and your hot bod!
Sabine-personality: (to Matthew) She’s coming, dude! I’ll shut up so you can get busy without distractions.
Isabella-personality: (to Matthew) Some shadow of a fig tree just tried to ravish me, I think.
Matthew-personality: (to Griffin) We totally did IT! Y’know, IT. Sneaky personality tried to get in, but the cat and samurai were all, “No way, man.”
Sabine and Griffin personalities: (to Matthew and Isabella) Good job, you little horndogs. Now sneaky personality’s plans have been foiled and the membrane between our planes is dissolving. Or something.

Alexandria by Nick Bantock: C-

From the inside flap:
Intrigue turns to danger and romance turns to passion as Matthew Sedon and Isabella de Reims, lovers separated by continents, struggle to make sense of a world beyond experience. Only the guidance of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem—experienced navigators of myth and reality—can keep them safe. In Egypt, mysterious forces vie to keep Matthew away from his archaeological dig just as he is about to make a vital discovery, one that may explain his increasingly strange and strong connection with Sabine. In the boulevards of Paris, under Griffin’s tutelage, Isabella learns to trust her own powerful instincts.

The book starts with a page that reads, “… some revelation is at hand.”

“Yeah, right,” I think. “I’d like to see it.”

Are revelations at hand? Not in the kind of revelation-that-makes-stuff-make-sense sort of way. I now think everything’s transpiring in the head of one loony with MPD.

I suppose there’s a bit more action in this one. The sneaky personality menaces some of the other ones or something, and there’s a funky statue at an archaeological site, and some chick sees visions with baboons coming out of hills that are really lion’s bellies, and… Um.

At least there’s only one more.