Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

The Looming Negative Streak

I currently have a 141-day streak on DuoLingo.  The more days in a row I practice Spanish with that little green owl, the prouder I feel – and the more determined I am to keep my streak going.  Losing those 141 golden calendar days and having to start over at 1??  It’s unthinkable.

Clearly, the concept of being On A Streak is motivating to me.

But The Streak has an evil twin.  This is the string of accumulated days in which I have not done something, not started that habit I kept meaning to do, not read that book or taken that walk or called that friend.  Similar to cold being the absence of heat, this isn’t really a streak in itself, but the absence of one.  It’s a buildup of squandered potential.  It is The Negative Streak.

The Negative Streak doesn’t cheer me on the way being On A Streak does.  Instead, it hovers.  It looms.  All those blank calendar days, all the unchecked boxes, peer over my shoulder and *tsk* at me.  And whenever I tell myself that any day is a good day to start something, The Negative Streak taps me on the shoulder.

“Remember all the days you’ve already failed?” it asks sweetly, frowning in false concern.  “You’ve already procrastinated so much.  Be honest with yourself.  Today won’t be any different.”

Suddenly, instead of facing forward, looking at all the time I have in front of me, I’ve turned around to view an insurmountable wall of wasted days.  It’s dispiriting, to say the least.

They say that perfectionists procrastinate to preclude failure, and I think The Negative Streak is born of that same mindset.  “Look at how easy it was for you to fail on such a small scale,” it says, “and think how much worse it will be when you (inevitably, given your track record) fail at the big stuff!  Much safer not to fight the inertia and just keep not doing things.”

The main place I’ve seen this lately is in my writing.  All the days of not managing to post on this blog or to even open the document of my manuscript have snowballed into an overwhelmingly enormous idea of this big, blobby project labeled just “WRITE MORE” which is hardly actionable or realistic because it has nowhere to start.  I am a person who needs lists, steps, concrete actions to take.

So I did two things.

One was that I actually kept a habit journal.  For the month of June, I tracked the habits I would ideally like to make a daily occurrence in my life.  I didn’t write once in that time, but I did get a better picture of where my priorities are, and seeing the places in my life where I am On A Streak (reading for fun, getting outside, exercising) was helpful.

The second was reading a blog post by a dear writing friend where she talked about why she has decided to start a secondary project just for the fun of it.  She explains that her Real Work in Progress is daunting, scary, and difficult, and she needed something to remind her why writing is fun.  And I realized I also needed something to remind myself why writing is fun, without any attached expectations.  So I dug out an old idea for a story and started writing.  There’s no cohesive narrative, no specific plans for story – I’m just having fun developing that world.  (There are dragons!)

So for July, maybe I’ll get to fill in the little color-coded square for “wrote today” more often, even if it’s just a paragraph about the etiquette of talking about hoards in draconian culture.  I’m hoping to put some distance between me and The Negative Streak.

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

Review: The Tearling Trilogy

*Note: This is a review of books I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I picked up The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen on a whim at my local bookstore.  It had a pretty cover, and the blurb on the back sounded like one of those fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in the past but probably wouldn’t reread ever again.

That was the first time Johansen turned my assumptions upside down.

The book begins with an armed guard fetching the 19-year-old Kelsea, the queen ascendant, from her foster parents’ cottage in the woods to take her to the Keep for her coronation.  Sounds traditional enough – a hidden heir, a medieval-ish setting, mysterious circumstances and vague dangers.  But the Tearling, Kelsea’s struggling kingdom, is anything but traditional.

I have to review the Queen of the Tearling trilogy as a whole because it operates best that way.  A coworker of mine saw me reading the first book at work, freaked out, loaned me the sequel, and graciously let me read her copy of the final book (once she was done with it, of course) when it came out.  She pointed out that the first book works mainly to set up the world, nothing truly exceptional (I thought it was well-written, but so are many traditional fantasy books).  It’s the second book and its use of magic and time that break new ground in fantasy worldbuilding.  Discovering the true nature of the Crossing that brought settlers to the Tearling was just so great, even in a genre that tends toward sudden twists (and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading Johansen’s work by giving my much less wonderful paraphrase here).

The Tearling trilogy consistently challenges conventions of the fantasy genre, setting readers up to anticipate tropes and not really mind it, because we like the characters and would appreciate them anyway – then taking a sharp left turn and refusing to fulfill those tropes.  For instance, the identity of Kelsea’s father is a longstanding mystery throughout the three books, with any number of powerful, immortal, or badass candidates available.  Then it turns out to be someone who died in the first book, someone with a hamartia, someone who was not special beyond being dear to his friends.  But it doesn’t fall flat, because in every instance of these unexpected twists, major or minor, Johansen stays true to the integrity of the world she’s created.

One of the things I appreciate most about this world is its strong women.  From Kelsea herself to her adversary the anonymous Red Queen to the kickass bodyguard of the Tearling’s founder, there is no dearth of women wielding power here – and diverse kinds of power too.  There are several survivors of domestic abuse.  There are physical fighters.  There are intelligent teachers who strive to pass on knowledge.  But Johansen’s world does not lack shallow, weak, or cruel women either.  There are women who turn bitter from their trauma, and women to whom remarkable things do not come naturally.  There are women who have no idea what they want, and women consumed by their desires.  Kelsea in particular walks a thin line, observing and even living in others’ stories (more on that in a minute) while she tries to decide how to harness or quash her own great temper.

Seeing so many different women be allowed to live out so many different endings and populate the world just as truthfully as the men made this a welcome addition to my bookshelf.  Whereas other novels I’ve read, however well-intentioned or well-executed, can tend toward only one or two main female characters with the rest being mere props (e.g., the Badass Freedom Fighter, the Moody Mysterious Maven, the Unexpectedly Tech-Smart Plain One), in my opinion, the majority of Johansen’s female characters were given the kind of detailed attention that transforms characters into people.

I think honestly it was the characters that made me fall in love with these books, and Johansen’s loyalty to and respect for those characters’ authenticity that made the whole trilogy so enjoyable. The third book is a masterful conclusion, sweeping readers up and hurtling along toward an ending that will probably be nearly as polarizing as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.  If you enjoy any type of fantasy, I highly, highly recommend all three books (in order, of course).

The Queen of the Tearling – 4/5 stars

The Invasion of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

The Fate of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?