November 22, 2015

Book 55: The Shore

The Shore
Sara Taylor

The first thing to note about this book is its structure; though advertised as a novel, The Shore is a collection of short stories that follow the lives of several generations (particularly women) of a family living on the Virginia Barrier Islands. The stories do link up nicely, even if readers must frequently refer to the family tree that Taylor provides at the front of the book, and certain themes weave their way throughout the collection. The interconnectedness is deliberate and easy to spot, yet feels natural as secondary characters in one story come to the fore in another. Most crucial is the legend of matriarch Medora, whose story is told directly but becomes (understandably) distorted over the generations, in a nice and relatively subtle metafictional nod to the power of story and the peculiarities of family legends. Each story feels complete while connecting to the greater whole, though one story- that of someone who left the islands- seems to be missing, leaving a gap in the otherwise tight mosaic. Other stories, particularly the final quartet, diverge slightly from the previous formula, following characters who are not Medora's direct descendants and only given a more direct connection to the remainder at the end of the book. Individual stories work well in isolation and their variation showcases Taylor's array of skills as she utilizes different narrative voices, tenses, and moods, making the characters come alive and distinguishing them individually and temporally. These stories truly feel like they are taking place in their own times, even if Taylor stumbles a bit in her attempt to include non sequitur plague fiction; this particular effort feels a bit forced and introduces some thematic elements that Taylor fails to exploit usefully. Despite this and some other minor stumbles, The Shore is an intriguing and engrossing portrait of a place, told through the various lenses of a single family and the diverse experiences they have, from poverty to profit and everywhere in between.

Grade: A-

November 13, 2015

Book 54: Zeroes

Chuck Wendig

I approached this book really wanting to like it from the description, which promised a fun near-future adventure with a misfit band of characters. By and large, Wendig's novel delivers exactly that, with standard technology-driven science fiction tropes blending seamlessly with the fast-paced plotting of a thriller and a touch of horror here and there. The technical elements are handled well for a non-specialist audience (of which I am most definitely a part) and the action is relatively easy to follow without an extensive computer background; the plot alone is twisty enough to keep most readers hooked regardless. The more graphic elements of the story come somewhat by surprise and stand out, and though they work in the context of the story readers may want to be aware going in that they do pop up. More conventionally, Wendig plays to his strengths with his core group of characters, who are a nice mix of quirks and identities. I suspect that much of his audience will see themselves within this group, mostly for the better. Though the book focuses more on its characters and plot twists, with its science fiction aspects acting more as a vehicle than a core, Wendig does explore some intriguing ideas about artificial intelligence and hacking as a pursuit with shifting and indefinite moral codes. The book's main stumble comes with its framing device, particularly at the end of the novel, where it comes seemingly out of nowhere and fails to connect the requisite dots. Even if it is the opening to a potential sequel, it makes little sense in the context of this book. Overall, however, Zeroes is a fun science fiction thriller that offers a different twist on some familiar tropes and a pleasant enough reading experience.

Grade: B+

November 5, 2015

Book 53: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
Fannie Flagg

After becoming quite familiar with this book from its reputation, I finally decided to read it. I found the book to be slightly rough going at the outset, as the framing narrative did little to draw me in: I found it to be a bit cloying and sentimental throughout and, much like the two present-day characters, would have rather preferred to spend my reading time among the bygone residents of Whistle Stop. Likewise, some elements of the main storyline can seem similarly haphazard, and the various diversions and backstories can seem either indispensible or irrelevant depending on the context and contents. The overall feeling is one of unevenness, aided little by the problematic handling of the book's Black characters. Yes, this novel intends to evoke midcentury Alabama; it was, however, written in the 1980s and Fannie Flagg should have made more of an effort to look at these characters through a more empathetic, modern lens. Despite some major flaws, the book does have a certain charm and, ironically perhaps in light of its poor treatment of race, excellent lesbian representation that feels no need to either hide nor trumpet its inclusive spirit. Idgie and Ruth's relationship is as natural to them and to the residents of Whistle Stop as any other, and while Flagg shies away from naming it outright her intent feels obvious. Representation is crucial, and it is always nice to see queer characters allowed to exist, happily, without being subject to the same five stories. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café certainly has its flaws, but its core holds a nice story of a bygone era, fully conceived and convincingly rendered, dripping in useful nostalgia.

Grade: B