Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Miniaturist (by Jessie Burton)

This novel got a rave review from Entertainment Weekly, but what really sucked me in was the title and premise. It's about a young bride in 17th century Amsterdam who has a pet parakeet and who has a mysterious connection with a person who makes miniatures. Miniatures, parakeets, and Amsterdam: It's like Jessie Burton looked into my soul. 

(Spoilers below, for those reading this in a feed-reader.)

I found it to be mostly an excellent read, one of those hard-to-put-down reading experiences. The beginning of it is very Rebecca, which is a fun echo. And I did love reading about some of my favorite things. One quibble is that it doesn't, to me, feel as historical as it could. There are some fascinating historical details, but the way themes like race and homosexuality are handled feels a little too 21st century and unrealistic for the time period.

The biggest problem for me, though, was the ending. Neither the parakeet nor the miniatures make it, so that was slightly depressing. Oh, and a bunch of characters die tragically too. The book's biggest problem, though, is the handling of the miniaturist. What's happening with her is the book's great driving mystery, and it's never resolved. "Oh, her name is also Petronella!" is ultimately meaningless, especially since Petronella isn't the only person getting these miniatures. So the ending falls very flat.

This makes it sound like I disliked it, and yet there are enough things I enjoyed about it (the character of Nella first and foremost) that I would still recommend it.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Vacation Reads Roundup

An unfortunate thing happened on the way to my vacation. On my first day aboard our cruise ship, my cell phone died. This would not have been a problem except that I had downloaded some books especially for the trip (Lock In, The Vacationers, The Miniaturist, Lola and the Boy Next Door) and was planning to read them all on my Kindle app. My cell phone died so completely that even safe mode could not bring it back to life. I was 80% done with Lock In at the time, too. Argh!

There is a lot of nice downtime on a cruise ship, and I was looking forward to all of these reads. What was I going to do instead, go to a demonstration on the wonders of Tanzanite, attend a fruit and vegetable carving demonstration, get a free foot print analysis, or play in a Ladies Singles Shufflebord tournament?

...Actually, these are all real cruise ship activities that, in hindsight, I totally should have done. But instead I went to the cruise ship library in a fit of desperation. The pickings were incredibly slim, but I did end up with a few books. Add to that a new Sue Grafton purchased at the airport on the way home, and the Scalzi novel that I finished on my laptop today, and here's my list of books read:

Divergent (by Veronica Roth)
Along for the Ride (by Sarah Dessen)
Reread: Thursday Next: First Among Sequels (by Jasper Fforde)
Being Nikki (by Meg Cabot)
W is for Wasted (by Sue Grafton)
Lock In (by John Scalzi)

I thought these would be good candidates to group together since three are young adult novels, three are sci-fi novels, and four are part of book series rather than standalones. Divergent qualifies in all three of these categories. I will devote a few sentences to each one.

Divergent wasn't mind-blowingly awesome, but it was fun, and I gladly would have read the next two books in the series if the ship's library carried it. I don't know if I'll go out of my way to finish the series now, though. I did enjoy the heroine very much and loved envisioning Shailene Woodley the whole time.  

Along for the Ride I was skeptical about, because I hated the one and only Sarah Dessen novel I'd read in the past. However, I really enjoyed it; it goes beyond the typical young adult romance to address issues like divorce, remarriage, academic pressure, and having parents who are kind of assholes. I'd give Dessen another try based on this. 

First Among Sequels is my favorite in the Thursday Next series and I enjoyed it just as much the second (actually I think third) time around. Definitely a treat to find it in the ship library.

In the opposite of my Dessen experience, I was let down by Being Nikki, which I thought never established its premise well enough and never allowed me to suspend my disbelief--it involves a girl having her brain transplanted into the body of a supermodel and none of the characters quite coalesced. The whole time I read it, I felt like I was missing some important establishing information. Of course five minutes ago I discovered that it is in fact the second book of a series, which makes a whole lot of sense. Again, I probably won't bother to go back to the first book, it's probably too late for me to really enjoy it.

I read W is for Wasted on the plane home; I've been a very spotty reader of the series, but I used to love it and I'm glad I picked it up. I did notice some clunky dialogue, and I just looked up my last review to see what the last one I read was, and I noted it there too! In this case, the sentence I dog-eared was "Naomi always said I used work to avoid being close, a claim I hotly denied until the truth of it came home." No. That is not a line of dialogue that an actual person would say. But everything else was so enjoyable that I forgave her for this.

Finally was the weird experience of reading 80% of Lock In before I read all these other books, and then the final 20% afterwards. The whole dead phone thing was made so much worse by the fact that Lock In was such a fun, suspenseful novel and I couldn't wait to see how it ended! It's one of my favorite things John has written, and definitely worthy of all the acclaim it's getting. (Personally I think this one is far more deserving of the Hugo than Redshirts, and it may go ahead and win him his second one anyway.) The one weird thing I noticed is the lack of description of some of the characters, most notably Vann. Unless I missed it, we don't seem to get a single identifying detail about her. Maybe this is deliberate, maybe I missed it, maybe I'll just have to wait for the movie.

(Note: he also never specifies the gender of the narrator in this first-person narrative, and there are two audiobook versions, one read by a man and one by a woman. I voted man not just because of my own assumptions, but because there are no gender-specific microaggressions in the book, and the idea of a woman facing none of these is implausible to me. But interesting what he's done here.)

And that was my list of vacation reads! One of the best things about the trip was having the chance to sit back and do some pleasure reading, which was one of my goals for the year. And once I get my phone back, I have my other Kindle reads to look forward to. At the airport in a frenzy of thank god I am among books once again, I also purchased The Engagements, Heart of the Matter, and (most excitingly, very much excite) David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. And the updated version of Live from New York comes out in two days! I need to get back on another cruise ship so I have time to finish it all....

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