Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

Wonderful. The back of the book asks, "What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a ... ghost story written by Jane Austen?" The publisher bemoans that that cannot be accomplished, but promises that this book is the next best thing.

Somehow, this British author published a book in the 80s that manages to accomplish just that... a ghost story in Austen style.

Without being too weighty in language and description, without actually venturing back to Victorian times, Hill creates a victorian ghost story.

Because I feel that any added description that I could offer would add nothing, I decline to do so. However, I highly recommend to anyone looking for a spine-tingler of a more mature variety for those dark and dreary nights.....

FOUR of five stars

The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire

This is one of those novels where you care... but then you don't. For some reason, as interesting and extraordinary as the characters were supposed to be, most of the time I could not bring myself to *really* want to know what was going to happen. Maybe because they were *all* written as extraordinary, they all became ordinary within the novel.

I will be more specific. You have a stereo-typical evangelical christian who gets conked on the head while sneaking in the basement of the neighboring catholic church with, of all things, a statue of a catholic figurehead, her "slutty" and "stupid" daughter, her bully son, and her other highly effeminate, "confused" son. After being hit in the head, Leontina (the mother)'s behavior becomes bizarre---though never quite bizarre enough---cutting off the beginnings of her words, acting like a child in many ways, and eventually shutting down (much more interesting examples exist, but I do not wish to spoil any of the story). This all happens while her children, 17, 15, and 13 (ish.. I am not sure of the age of the youngest), are "taking care of" her and attempting to move forward and grow in their own lives. Just to add a little more, the daughter is also suffering from a boyfriend who is suddenly unavailable, as well as being the object of grown men's attentions.

And that's just one of the story lines. The other centers around three gay guys in this small new york town who need to practice for their singing group in a building housing a dozen or so elderly nuns. One of the guys, who also happens to be the musical director for the catholic church in which Leontina hit her head, is fighting demons from his past, another of the guys is fighting his too-catholic parents as well as a life-threatening disease, and the third is jewish.

In under 300 pages, the book became a series of events instead of a novel wherein the reader could actually feel attached to any of the characters. In the end, it was difficult to feel anything---sympathy, joy, laughter, pain---for the characters because they had all become caricatures of who they could have been.

Criticism aside, Maguire is still a great writer with interesting approaches, good ideas, and a nice use of words.

I would recommend this book to people whose favorites books are among the "drama" or "life" books.

THREE of five stars

Alternating Worlds by Gary Wolf

This book is true sci-fi, taking place in the far future on spaceships and other planets. I think the book's biggest challenge in gaining the readership it deserves is the first ten pages and the cover. The cover seems to indicate (and did indicate to anyone who saw me reading the book) that it is a new age book, not a "space opera" with bad guys and wars. The first ten pages unfortunately centers around the weakest dialogue---that between the main character, Rohde, and his first mate, Jensen.

However, once I started page 11, the page numbers became insignificant as the story developed. An antique art historian and art dealer is an unlikely hero, but he has enough gusto to overcome his trade.
Wolf does a great job creating relatively vivid characters and an intriguing plot. At times I felt that the parallels between the political struggles in the book and in our current world were a bit obvious, but turned the pages all the same to find out how it resolved itself in the future. I thought the concept of a planet that seeks to give full, fair, and equal credit to all of the beliefs of all of the people since (the dawn of?) time was an incredibly creative and fascinating concept, and I was particularly impressed by the paradox of true alternance that arises near the end of the book (not wanting to spoil anything, I refrain from further explanation).

The personal stories of and the dialogue between Rohde and Jensen were just a bit too "normal" (boring). But the story line, the tension within the main story, and even the conversations between people of different planets made those Rohde-Jensen conversations minor blips.

I recommend to sci-fi fans and *strongly* urge to move beyond the cover and the first 10 pages if those are, indeed, obstacles. A great sci-fi read!

THREE AND A HALF of five stars

Gray Apocalypse by James Murdoch

This is a good, page-turning, sci-fi, thriller. I would say it is in line with the Dan Browns and the Grishams of the world.... but the writing is a little bit novice. The author is quite adept at enticing the reader to turn the page to find out "what next?!" However, it seemed apparent to me, whether true or not, that the author had taken some tricks on "how to write a novel" and gone just a little too far with them.

In particular, there were a few sentiments that were repeated in *over*-abundance. There really was no need to "repeatedly repeat" the "if only!!" thoughts of the main character. Also, the stories of romance between the main characters and their ladies were a bit cliched. You know, the better-than-average, yet romantically-inexperienced guy with the so-beautiful-she-turns-everyone's-heads, brilliant lady. And this line appears not once, but twice in this novel!

All that being said, I would still recommend to anyone looking for a good conspiracy-theory thriller about those little gray guys coming to take over the world.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.