Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Holiday Reading Book Report

My first real workday of the new year went reasonably well, but there really is only so much virtue one can cram into a single day, so I didn't quite get everything I wanted done. I did manage to meet my writing time goal, and I spent half an hour sorting through one of the boxes in the office closet, with almost all of it being trashed. And I deleted a couple of hundred e-mails from my in-box. If I meet my writing time goal today, I might finish the first draft of the screenplay. It's definitely going to need a lot of rewriting. I'm likely going to come up a bit short, but then there are some scenes that may need fleshing out because I've been so afraid of having more story than time and haven't developed things fully. Once that draft's done, I have some editing work I need to do on something else, and then I may get back to that novel I was working on.

Now, for some book discussion. I read a lot over the holidays, and there were a couple of things I wanted to discuss.

I read The Cuckoo's Calling by "Robert Galbraith," JK Rowling's attempted stealth book before she was outed. I saw it on the library shelf and thought I'd heard of it, then didn't realize what it was until I took it home. I have mixed feelings about the "outing" of the author. If she wanted the book to be judged on its own merits and to try something different, then she had that right. But on the other hand, I might never heard of this book otherwise, and I really liked it. It feels like the start of a series, and I hope the experience of having her authorship revealed doesn't sour her on continuing the series.

One other good reason for taking a pen name for this book was that it's so very different from the Harry Potter series. If you're expecting whimsy and magic, it's not there, and it's rather gritty and adult, so I can imagine the outrage if some clueless parent just grabbed a book off the shelf for a child because JK Rowling is the child's favorite author. Basically, this is a hardboiled detective novel with a few twists. We've got our bitter, down-on-his-luck PI and his plucky Girl Friday assistant, but in modern London and with resources like cell phones and the Internet. The plot was twisty enough that I didn't figure out the bad guy, although all the clues were right there. The red herrings all seemed really viable. I like the main characters and want to see more about how they progress, as this was essentially an origin story, showing how the Girl Friday arrived and how that turned things around for the PI. To some extent, it's as much her story as it is his, as she's a small-town-girl-trying-to-make-it-in-the-city temp who happens to fall into the job of her dreams and finds that she's surprisingly good at this sort of thing.

I haven't heard any rumors about any more books about these characters, but I want them.

I also read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, the author of The Historian. This is another of those literary mystery-type books, with a story within a story, as the book tells the story of someone uncovering another story. This one wasn't quite as twisty or layered, though, and there isn't a fantasy or supernatural element (though I kept expecting one). It's the story of a psychiatrist who takes the case of a prominent painter who was arrested for attempting to slash a painting in a museum. He won't talk, he keeps painting portraits of a particular woman, and he has a stack of antique letters to and from an obscure French artist. To learn more about what's going on with him, the doctor tracks down the man's ex-wife and ex-girlfriend and has the letters translated. The narrative skips around from the doctor telling his story about his investigation to the ex-wife telling the story of their courtship, marriage and divorce to the ex-girlfriend telling about their relationship, all with the letters interspersed. I have to say that some of the stories strained credibility because in some cases they were supposed to be someone telling a story in conversation, except the language is so literary and focusing on the kind of details that come up in writing, not in speech. These people tell all kinds of stuff in a way that sounds like something in a novel, not the way you'd expect a person to talk to a psychiatrist. I'm still not sure I understand what was really going on, and the resolution didn't quite work.

But it was still a really compelling read, especially as it built toward the end and we found out what had happened in the past. It also, strangely, made me want to do something artistic. I'm not very visually minded and am no real artist, but my parents gave me various art supplies over the years, and I went through phases of playing with them. I was rather decent at drawing at one time. I've even had a drawing published -- when I was working on the school newspaper, I sold an ad to the town's preschool and drew a little illustration for the ad. They started using that art in all their ads and as a logo (technically a copyright violation, but I'll let it slide). There's a cafe in town that has local business ads on the tables under lamination, so it's fun to go eat there and see my own artwork on the table. I haven't really done anything artistic in years, but while reading this book, I caught myself looking at the continuing education art course listings for the community college, until sanity prevailed and I remembered that I don't have the time to devote to that sort of thing. But maybe I'll get out the pencils and pastels more often because it's good to use that side of the brain every so often. Anyway, I like it when a book spills over into my real life like that and makes me want to do something, so I consider that a mark in this book's favor. So, if you like books about research and are interested in art, it could be enjoyable. Just don't set your expectations high for the kind of twists and shocks that were in The Historian.

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