Category Archives: Bestseller

Louise Penny: Masculinity FTW

I did a lot of reading this summer. The bulk of that reading was Louise Penny novels, and so rather than write one post after the other about Inspector Gamache and descriptions of Quebecois cheese, I’m writing this one post, and it’s fine, because the novels are all the same: a pleasant romp through a picturesque Quebec countryside with characters that make you hope for a better world, even while murder abounds and threats of Darkness loom. I also read a lot of recipe books – many featuring the Instant Pot – of which I will not bore you.

I read The Murder StoneA Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. My mum rightly pointed out that I’ve done myself a disservice in reading out of order, but let’s be clear that I’m not likely to ever go back and read the others, so finding out that one of the detectives has a drug problem after he’s been to NA and gotten married to Gamache’s daughter hardly ruins the thread for future reading.

So right. If you’ve not encountered Louise Penny here’s the thrust: her novels win heaps of awards. People love them. There are organized bus tours to the town where Penny lives so that people can visit the cafe featured in the novel. They’re incredibly enjoyable while you’re reading them, something entirely comforting like so many wool sweaters and mugs of tea. Inspector Gamache has cult followings who want to know where he ‘actually’ lives (my beliefs about Gilbert Blythe notwithstanding, fictional characters only live in the mind).

So what’s the deal? My guess is that people (and me while I’m reading them) like the security of a man who is kind and who exemplifies the tropes of a gentlemen-masculinity that are all laughable in reality. We want to believe that men can be kind, brave and stand up for principles and values amid a world of corruption, greed, lust and those other sins. Despite All the Evidence to the contrary, and more importantly, despite the reality that no one ever needed men to be the bastions of honour in the first place, Gamache is an irresistible character because of these qualities. We swoon at the idea of a kind and noble man who occupies a place of power because there are so few examples in reality.

I’m not advancing a novel argument here. I’m sure anyone reading the books would come to the same conclusion. That it’s as much the attraction to Gamache and his pastoral perfect life as it is the mystery around the murder that keeps us reading. We want to be close to a life of comfortable chairs, exquisite food (though the descriptions of food are something distracting – like I have to get up and make bread and cheese before I can keep reading) and totalizing romance because such a place and such people are all but impossible to find in the world we occupy. Utter wish fulfillment.

So it’s something of a rude awakening to come back to 2019 and recall the moment we are in. The responsibilities of being flawed after spending so many hours with the flawless is taxing. It almost makes me want to read non-fiction. Almost.

 

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I Let You Go: Mystery! Thrills! Daring Escapes!

I Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh, is totally silly and totally fun and I listened to it on audiobook and then book an ebook version for the cottage because I can read faster than anyone can read to me, and I wanted to know! what! happens! next!

Oh I get it, it’s plenty flawed with damsels in distress, and deceit, and assumptions about women-and-work. But it’s still… so fun. Like when Patrick-the-vet gets introduced as a character and his blond hair is waving in the wind and sun dappled skin is glowing, you’re just like… romance!

I’d caution ever reading this with expectations to think deeply about anything. And strong warnings about descriptions of domestic violence and the death of children that are difficult and could easily make the book one you’d rather skip.

That said, if you do choose it, I’d hazard a guess you stay up late to finish it because It Has All the Plot! Plot! Plot!

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Where the Crawdads Sing: A Coles Notes and Complaints

Everyone is reading Where the Crawdads Sing. Like over a hundred person waiting list at the library so I decided to buy it kind of everyone. And I’m glad I did. It was a perfect cottage read, even with a couple of flaws that prevent it from being great or an unqualified go-read-it-now.

Set in the lagoon-swamp of the Carolina coast, the novel opens with a dead body (always an exciting hook) and then moves decades back in time to follow  Kya, or ‘Marsh Girl,’ an abandoned child who raises herself amid the wilderness. Pulling at all the appeal that comes with person-versus-nature stories, Kya, must finds ways to both maintain her physical life through trading food and scraping up materials, as well as develop some kind of emotional-social life through relationship with animals and the natural sphere, while also courting – as much as she can – connections with people in the neighbouring town. Even while she always – and deeply – fears that everyone will always leave her. The propulsion of the plot is both in rooting for Kya and some kind of resolution to her absolute loneliness, but more in the understanding of her connection to the dead body, Chase Something-Maybe-Andrews(?) and an explanation of the crime.

Where the novel does incredibly well is in the vivid description of setting and place. Kya’s lagoon and her connection to the natural world is at once detailed and lively –  the reader readily accepts  along with Kya the magic of the land and its tenuous preservation amid efforts to develop it. No surprise, perhaps, as author Delia Owens was first a non-fiction nature and science writer. It also does well in the characterization of Kya, who we come to know intimately – in  part because  we feel through the third person limited narration, paired with her total isolation, that we are the only ones to truly know her.

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD* Continue reading

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The Power: Red Clocks is better, but everyone will tell you to read this one, so whatever. It’s fine.

Folks. I’m on a streak. Hahaha. You thought I meant sport. Okay, no you didn’t. It’s a book blog. I’m on a reading streak of great books and it is *so* good and owes to all of your wonderful suggestions, so thank you. Probably also a consequence of having for the first time in my life comfortable patio furniture and so there I am every night sipping red wine, reading a novel, out in the evening air like the spoiled middle class lady that you all know and love. Occasionally I think about higher aspirations and then… I return to reading.

So right, this one. Naomi Alderman’s The Power comes with a heap of comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (about Margaret Atwood, I will have more to say) in the way of some kind of instant dystopian classic. And I’ll grant you it is the kind of thing I can see appearing on a million reading lists, in part for its sheer simplicity of premise, and how incredibly powerful that premise is in helping rethink the present. Right, so the frame narrative situates the book itself as documenting the ancient human race and the time of the Cataclysm (or maybe the break? or the great change? I can’t remember) when girls began to develop electromagnetic powers that allowed them to – at the most basic level – use electricity to zap/kill people. Some more sophisticated ladies figure out how to use the power for mind control and wicked fun things like that. Once girls figure out they can share the power with women, the novel really takes off with the question: what if women had power? (I did warn you it was simple in premise. And title).

From this straightforward question Alderman takes wide range, unpacking domestic violence, sex work, religion, politics, the military, business and law. All in the shift from patriarchal to matriarchal control. In doing so the reader is offered (what really shouldn’t be, but is) a fresh view of how fucking bananas absurd the state of the world is in this real present for women. Where the novel sets up a state – and narrates the introduction of the laws – where men can’t leave their homes unescorted, can’t travel without a female guardian’s permission, the reader at once recognizes this law as utterly and entirely ridiculous. And then recalls that, of course, these same laws apply to women. Or if not in law, in societies where women are made, without the force of state violence, to feel, to be, controlled. At the same time, it is kind of a boring kind of feminism that just flips the tables and says okay now women are also rapists and murderers and anyone with power will exploit that power because absolute power corrupts etc etc. Or not boring, because it did give me occasional pause, but just not a particularly… revelatory set of ideas.

The shifting perspective of characters affords this wide ranging investigation into the branches of societal change a gendered power reversal might impact. I found the shifting a bit choppy in the earlier parts of the book and somewhat disorienting (and not in a purposeful dystopian sort of way, more in ‘who is that again’ kind of way). That said, once the character lines were more firmly established I appreciated the shifting perspectives and the scope they afforded. I would say that none of the characters on their own felt particularly well developed; rather they were stand-ins for their role in the society (the goddess, the military mom, the gangster capitalist). As a consequence, I found the moments of crisis and threat for these characters less riveting than I might if I was invested in their well-being. One notable exception is the male reporter, Tunde, whose motives shift throughout the novel in compelling ways, and whose introduction to the experience of fear is great.

I suppose where my complaint comes in – and this is hard to avoid, I guess – is that this is a book that wants to be be Big and Important and it reads with that sort of drive. Whereas Red Clocks explored the same themes, it did so subtly (and with better writing). I’m not sure whether that’s a legitimate complaint or not, so you can choose to ignore it or not, but when you do read it (or watch the inevitable movie/TV adaptation) you can recall this warning. You’ll feel on every page the sincerity of wanting you to get that this is a book about Ideas.

Oh right. Margaret Atwood. So Atwood selected Alderman to be her mentee. And Alderman dedicated the book to Margaret and Graeme, so I’m guessing they got on well. I’m a cynic, and I know I should just be happy for Alderman, and happy for Margaret that the partnership was so fruitful, but… a cynical part of me wonders if Atwood is so excited about the book because it will a) further drive up sales  in the Handmaid’s Tale  and b) might distract from the Bad Feminism hoopla of the past years. Or maybe I’m jealous. WHO CAN SAY.

 

 

 

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