Let's Book It

I've been taking a spring break of sorts from writing blog posts, but that doesn't mean that culture isn't being consumed! I've been diligently recording what I've been watching, playing, and reading, and the titles have been piling up. So rather than write up a deluge of posts, let's clear out all the books I've read lately in one go. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), only one book of the bunch is really worthy of your attention.

The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014)

I try to jump from genre to genre in my reading, and it had been a while since I took on a traditional thriller. This type of book is churned out in buckets, so I'm trying to remember what made this one actually jump out and grab my attention. I believe it may have been a positive blurb in Entertainment Weekly. Author Richard Montanari has written almost a dozen thrillers (see what I mean about the churning?) but the jacket flap summation did catch my interest. A serial killer in Philadelphia is targeting seemingly random children and posing their bodies as scenes from a dollhouse tea party. The plot is extremely contrived, and the characters are all familiar archetypes, which is something I generally expect from the thriller genre. Still, it was well-written enough to hold my attention, and at no point did the police work done to unravel the mystery seem laughable, as it does in so many other books. The Doll Maker is not great literature by any stretch, but if you're looking for a way to pass the time on a long plane ride, you could do a lot worse.

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014)

How much lenience should you give a book that isn't particularly good, but at least strikes out into territory that desperately needs some attention? Should I treat it like I do the Wachowski movies that turn out to be beautiful disasters? Or do I nitpick it as I would any other book? In this case, I'll split the difference. Cub is a teen romance story with gay protagonists. But instead of the usual delicate, pretty-boy gays pop culture usually gives us, these are beefy, hairy, hicks from the countryside of West Virginia. That segment of the population is sadly underserved, so Mann gets credit just for inclusion. That said, the story is by turns rote and needlessly off-kilter. By rote, I mean that all the traditional beats are there; anyone who's ever read a gay-themed story will recognize the signposts of Disapproving Parents and Religious Bullies. And by needlessly off-kilter, I mean things like making the protagonist a pagan, but never really goes anywhere with that thread, or delving into the romantic entanglements of side characters we haven't spent any time getting to know. So what do you do with a book that should get a C for style but a B for ambition? Split the difference!

The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013)

Sometimes, I fantasize to myself about attempting to write. In these fantasies, I never go so far as to delude myself into thinking I'd have the talent and patience to write a novel, but I tell myself that hey, I'd probably be able to crank out a few good short stories. It turns out I've been spoiled by all those great collections. If I actually wrote short stories, they'd probably turn out like this book: Fun and wacky premises that go nowhere in the telling. There was so much promise here. A story about a hijacked plane that circles the sky above the airport for decades. A man who has accidentally shrunk his wife and goes from pity to hostility. A man attempts to evaluate his relationship with the fellow survivors who are all trying to escape a zombie-filled mall. None of the stories are bad, but they're all somewhat shallow, never exploring the characters' motivations beyond the elevator pitch ideas I just summarized. This is one of those books I may circle back around to at some point to see if it strikes me any differently, but for now, it gets a shrug.

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

If I've sounded disappointed in this post so far, here's an opportunity to perk up! Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into. The novel shifts back and forth in time, from an eventful production of King Lear on the eve of the outbreak to a band of survivors setting up a small settlement in the remains of an airport, and all of them are equally compelling. To mention much more would be to spoil it, but this is a strong recommend, and is likely to show up on my best-of list at the end of the year.

Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013)

Other books in this post got a less-than-enthusiastic grade, but this one stands out as the most disappointing in terms of meeting my expectations. At first glance, it had everything going for it. A strange, almost other-worldly house full of unusual characters, accompanied by dour illustrations that look like they came directly from Edward Gorey's pen had me so excited to crack this open. But the story just lands with a thud. Its premise is odd, but drew me in right away: There's a large mansion composed of discarded objects located in the middle of miles and miles of dump. The family that maintains the heaps are the Iremongers, each of whom is assigned a birth object that they must keep in their possession at all times, be it a letter opener or a bathtub plug. When an orphan is brought to the house as a servant, she sets off a chain of events that threatens the entire household's existence. Cool, right? Sadly, the coolest premise in the world can't save you if the execution is sloppy, and I just could not bring myself to care about a single character in this book. Reading it became a chore that I forced myself to complete. There are some good ideas in there, and a short bit with the family's matriarch was genuinely gripping, but overall, this book was simply was not entertaining, and there's no way I'm continuing with the trilogy.

The Doll Maker: B-
Cub: C+
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories: C+
Station Eleven: A-
Heap House (Iremonger #1): C


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