Yes, I AM alive! I know. It's been three months. I don't really want to talk about it, except to say: water heater leaking, rental house damage, water heater spraying, severe storms in my home state, rental house repair...enough said. I'm back on my reading game and ready to share. Here's some of what I've read while I was gone.
(A note on these book entries: I use pictures from the Barnes and Noble site because they are large and not gunked up with "look inside!" arrows. You all know I'm an amazon fan. There are lots of links to amazon on my blog, but the book covers are prettier at B&N. Because I use their covers, I link to them in my reviews.)
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
I read this book in two days. The pacing is awesome. Read it when you have time to devote to a book, because you'll be mad if you have to get this story in small pieces. I enjoyed the realistic character development for "Det.-Ret." Bill Hodges. There's a particularly apt portrayal of OCD in a couple of characters, and Hodges evolves in his ability to spot the problem and respond with compassion. I liked Hodges' young friend, Jerome, but he's a bit static in his perfection. We hear a lot about his "identity issues," and I would have liked to see Jerome get to work that through a little more. But I did love Jerome's interactions with OCD-plagued Holly late in the story.
Yet the most interesting--and disturbing--character in this story is our baddie, Mr. Mercedes himself. In him, King constructs a complex monster, a killer who does not follow a profile. While Hodges is left outside trying to figure him out--and making mistakes the reader will easily spot--King draws the reader in much closer, closer than you may want to be. At the story rushes toward an ending, you will not be sure which of these dueling wits--Hodges or Mr. M.--will come out on top, or which characters get away alive. The answers will surprise you!
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
It has been years since I've read an Amy Tan book, but I looked forward to her latest offering. It was one of the books I asked for as a birthday present. After a slow start, the story is full of challenges for our main character, Violet, but I was so devastated for her--and her mother--that for a little while it was hard to keep reading. If this happens to you while reading this novel, I urge you to keep on.
At the end of the novel, I wanted more. Even after the slow start, I felt that Violet's daughter does not get enough of a voice and has to summarize her childhood's events far more succinctly than an 18-year-old actually would. I wanted to see some of her life, the way I had seen Violet's. Tan does find a way within the plot to show you some of the child's life through the eyes of other characters, and that plotting technique worked for me. However, I wish there had been more of that kind of revelation before Violet's daughter has to speak for herself.
I was especially touched by the depictions of reunion and forgiveness in this book. Tan does this so well, reminding us that young adult conflicts seldom define the parent-child relationship for life. There is much more richness in that bond revealing itself as children mature and parents age. Tan's books remind us that, as long as you're still living, it's never too late to repair, replace or return to our vital but lost relationships. You just have to be willing to re-imagine that bond in light of your increased experience--and let your loved one do the same.
The Valley is a good book. I wish it had been lighter in the beginning and heavier in the end. However, the poignant and real mother/daughter relationships that Tan excels in portraying made me glad I read this novel.
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
My son just finished second grade, and we were reading this book series together and discussing it. He has stopped off after book two for now, however, and I think I understand why. My older children grew up reading Harry Potter novels that were published one by one as they grew. My son is the first child interested in reading the series who has ALL the books available to him right NOW. I'm understanding that part of the magic of this series is that the story grows up as Harry does and as my older children did during this story's seven-part publication.
The Sorcerer's Stone may have been appropriate for an 8 year old, but this one is not. This is a book about love and betrayal, about innocence and guilt--and the lack of clear definition for these things at times.
The introduction of Lupin and Sirius is wonderful. For me, the best thing about reading this book was getting to know Hermione's character. I loved watching her manage the crazy schedule with less grace than was portrayed by the movie. She's so human here, especially when standing up to Harry and Ron. There's a lot more tension in that trio than comes across in the silver screen account. As Hermione struggles alone over Hagrid's problem with the hippogryff or her crisis of conscience over the broom Harry receives as a mysterious gift, the reader gains sympathy for her even while Ron and Harry seem incapable of it. I relate to Hermione much better as a written character, and I have to say that the strain between Ron and Hermione does seem to point to future romance, even here.
In a year or two, I am sure my son will love this book about maturing and developing an ability to perceive the pain in complex human relationships, the agony at being misunderstood, and the delight in standing by your friends only to find that they were right and true all along.
The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
What if the epic story of Voldemort's failed return had been narrated by the Malfoys and the Dursleys--and what if they had to leave themselves out of it? Would Harry and Dumbledore and all the crew have come off as well? If anyone by the name of Dursley or Malfoy could not talk about themselves, would ANY character emerge as likeable?
Take a moment to think about that. For my part, I doubt it. I think that a more jaded point of view, whatever the reason for that perspective (jealousy, sour grapes, arrogance), would demand that all the players in the story show at least as many failings as virtues. As the tale progressed, I imagine we'd grow quite weary of Dumbledore's arrogance (however justified) and Harry's bumbling (however brave or lucky). In the end, although we might not particularly like Voldemort, we might not be happy about who's left standing, either--that is, if the Dursleys and the Malfoys could even tell a tale together to begin with, which I doubt. Kinda fun trying to picture it though, huh?
And that's where I am having finally read The Casual Vacancy. A community that is hopelessly at odds and full of unlikely connections must endure an election to resolve touchy questions regarding its own future. No character in this story is perfect--except maybe for the dead man. And when other characters die and we watch the post-death glamour applied to their defects, we fully understand that the dead city councilor must have had his failings, too.
With every character in this story, you see the warts first. I think that's why it is difficult to get past the first fifty pages or so. I know that as I read this book, I was searching for the hero. Don't make my mistake: don't look for Harry. Or, you know what? Look for him, but look for him in every character, and remember that you're seeing with Mr. Dursley's eyes--or Draco's. Your challenge is to hold on to your compassion and look beyond the prejudice or physical ugliness or the shabby trappings of your subject, and hold out for their actions to reveal complexity and goodness and a capacity for change. Even the most despicable personalities entangled in this novel's struggle will show you something fine at some point, but you have to look for it. You have to search for "God shining through every soul," even when you think you are dealing with a hopeless case.
Having said that, at the end of the book, I continue to be awed by Rowling's extraordinary ability to draw consistent characters, and the intricate plotting of this novel had me in tears by its end. I didn't love how I felt reading it--I often wanted to walk away from these people and never come back. But sticking with them had its rewards; for one thing, it gave me hope. You don't have to know a Harry Potter for goodness to shine in the world. Sometimes, God finds us through the most unlikely of messengers.