Thursday, July 10, 2008

Book Report: Fantasy vs. Reality

I learned yesterday that while mid-day exercise gives me energy for the afternoon, a mid-day swim has the opposite effect. I don't know why swimming always makes me sleepy (and hungry), but I was barely able to stay awake all afternoon and evening. I wonder why that is. It could be the effect of being out in the sun. It could be the cool water of the pool lowering the body temperature, which slows everything down and makes me sleepy. Or it could be that after the feeling of floating freedom in the water, returning to dry land makes me feel weary and heavy -- the beached whale effect. Whatever it is, I shall have to save swimming for after I've done everything I need to do in a day rather than as a break between all the business work and the writing work. I did finally get some good writing work done at night when we had another surprise cloudburst. And then, wouldn't you know it, after spending the entire day fighting off sleep and not even being able to focus well enough to read much, when I went to bed, I had trouble falling asleep.

I've realized that I'm WAY behind on book reports. So, without further ado, here's some of what I've been reading lately:

Beastly by Alex Flinn -- this is a young adult novel that's a modern take on Beauty and the Beast. A spoiled rich kid plays a cruel prank on the wrong goth chick and finds himself transformed into a hideous beast. You know the drill. The modern twists on this story are what's really clever. For instance, woven throughout the novel are transcripts from a chat room support group for people who've been magically transformed (the frog has some trouble typing). One of the beast's attempts to get someone to love him in spite of his appearance involves meeting people online, since then they'll get to know him before they find out what he looks like -- and then he uses that magic mirror that allows him to see anyone to look at the real person behind the MySpace profile. Cop, 12-year-old, 45-year-old woman, cop, etc. One thing that's always bugged me about the Beauty and the Beast story is that the guy who's being punished for judging people by appearances breaks his curse by falling in love with the most beautiful girl around (yeah, he really learned his lesson). Here, the "beauty" is more along the lines of "not conventionally gorgeous, but quite lovely when you get to know her and when she makes a little effort," so he still has to learn to look beyond appearances. I really enjoyed this book. Aside from the clever spins on the old tale, it's quite a sweet romance.

Then continuing the fairy tale theme, I read Weird Sisters, Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett, where he sends up a lot of old fairy tales, Shakespeare, and goodness knows what else in his trilogy about the three witches. Laugh out loud funny and still rather charming, of course, and it's a little alarming how much I find myself identifying with Magrat Garlick. I'm not sure why, since I wouldn't think I'm much like her, but I really related to her. However, I have this terrible feeling that I'm going to be Granny Weatherwax in my old age. Except for the being a witch part. I'm all about the headology, though. I also read Soul Music, and I think I may have developed a teeny literary crush on Death. He's so charming and gracious and well-meaning, and I think he'd be fun to hang out with. However, that could get disturbing as you'd never know for sure if he was showing up to hang out or if he was on business (as in the nightmare I had last night).

Then for a change of pace, I've been reading a few things that might be sort of classified as chick lit. The English American by Alison Larkin is about a young Englishwoman who's always known she was adopted but who thinks she's figured out why she's so different from the rest of her adopted family when she learns her birth parents are American. She gets new insights into herself when she goes to America to meet them. I was kind of so-so on this one. It was an entertaining page-turner and an interesting look at the impact of adoption, but I felt like the characters were more cartoons than real people. Supposedly a lot of it was about breaking down stereotypes about the cultures, but the characters were all pretty stereotypical, without a lot of nuance. Most Americans I know aren't all soppy about talking about their feelings to everyone, for instance. Maybe she only knew people on the coasts who are part of the culture of therapy. Midwesterners could teach the Brits a few lessons on emotional reserve.

Then I read Behaving Badly by Isabel Wolff, whose Making Minty Malone may have been the first real chick lit book I read, even before I got my hands on Bridget Jones's Diary and back when they hadn't yet decided to split that genre away from romance and publish it in trade paperback. This one's about an animal behaviorist who hasn't been too good at figuring out people, and now she feels like she needs to make up for something awful that she was involved with in her past. There's a bit of a mystery woven in, and the animal stuff is fun, especially since I started reading it while a PBS show about dogs was playing in the background (in my hotel room after ApolloCon). While I was reading in the book about her explaining to her clients that their dogs were just behaving like dogs, the PBS show was talking about how until relatively recently, dogs were bred for behavior to do specific jobs, and that hasn't been bred out of them now that they're just pets, and that explains their behavior. It was kind of a weird crossover.

And then there was Roommates Wanted by Lisa Jewell, which was the book I'd planned to buy at Target that they no longer had, but then my library got it and I was the first to check it out. This would be stretching the definition of "chick lit" as one of the main characters is a guy, but it's still similar in tone and theme. This guy's father bought him a big old house before vanishing from his life, and he's ended up taking in as lodgers people who are in transition or who don't have anywhere else to turn -- a bunch of lost souls. When he realizes in his late 30s that his life has become really stagnant and that his house is now worth a fortune that would allow him to pursue some dreams, he doesn't feel he can just kick out his lodgers and sell the house without knowing they'll be okay. He has to emerge from his own cave to get to know them so he can figure out how he can help them move on so that he can move on. In a way, this reminded me of Last Chance Saloon, my favorite Marian Keyes book. Both involve large casts of characters we follow as their lives converge and diverge.

Now today I really must buckle down and work. I think last night I came up with the missing link to fix the synopsis I'm working on. It sometimes feels like an exercise in futility to do so much work to fine-tune a synopsis when I know that almost everything will be fixed in the writing of the actual book, but when you're expecting someone to buy a book just on the synopsis, you have to at least pretend to have figured it all out ahead of time.

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