Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category.

Great Expectations (audio)


Great Expectations
was my first serious attempt at an audio book. I now have a long commute (more than an hour on the way home) and I decided something had to be done to make the time pass. I had my doubts. First of all, I’ve never liked being read to and that’s why I had never listened to an audio book all the way through before. More particularly, I once tried to read Great Expectations and was enjoying it so little that I bailed about a third of the way through. But I’m trying to live outside the box these days so I decided to give it a chance.

This was a great recording. Mark Smith, from Simpsonville, North Carolina, as he said at the start of each chapter, was a very skillful reader. With his help, I saw the humor I had missed on my last attempt at reading the book. I had no trouble following along and I really looked forward to the time I spent listening to it. My only complaint about the book was that the ending entailed having everyone conveniently die and all problems disappear in a puff of fortuitous smoke. But it was such a tangled web that I can’t imagine how Dickens could have untangled it any other way.

My only complaint about the audio book was that I didn’t know how to resume playback mid-chapter or fast forward or reverse within a chapter, so that limited me severely to listening to a chapter at a time, some of which were half an hour long. Since then, I’ve learned on the internet how to control my MP3 player better. I now know that if I turn the device off (rather than pause the track and let the device shut itself off from inactivity), then it does resume where I left off. This is so exactly the opposite of what you might expect that I’d never have guessed it myself.  I also learned that if I hold down the FF or REV buttons, instead of just pushing them, it forwards and reverses within the track as opposed to just moving to the next track. These are both very useful pieces of information. I thought I was going to have to buy some expensive MP3 player instead of my cheapo $14 one.

Lastly, Librivox is a great resource. I’m listening to another audio book now and the reader isn’t as good as Mark Smith, but all the books are free and easily downloaded without DRM in MP3 format. It’s only books in the public domain, obviously, but there are quite a few and this way I don’t have to worry about library policies or using iTunes or any other proprietary software. I’m quite happy with the solution.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay was the third (and supposedly final) book in the Hunger Games Triology. Unlike some other young adult series, e.g. Harry Potter and Twilight, Hunger Games did not improve as it went on. Neither the author nor the books seemed to mature and the first book was probably the best. The final denouement was not the inevitable result of what had come before, the characters didn’t grow, and the ending was neither optimistic nor realistic. It was merely the end. However, all three books were enjoyable quick reads.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

It’s been a while since I read a piece of fiction, or much of anything to tell the truth. My reading seems to come in spurts. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately and I started reading a book on writing called The Weekend Novelist which uses The Accidental Tourist for its examples, so I got it from the library. Well, I really enjoyed it.

The other Anne Tyler I’ve read in the past is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and my recollection of that is that it was well-written but depressing. This one seemed more hopeful, almost a book of redemption. Specifically you’re watching the lead character, Macon, emerge from the box he’s lived his life in. I’ve been working on getting out of my box too.

We all tend to define ourselves–I never do this, I always do that, I’m no good at such and such–as though these are physical absolutes, unchangeable laws of nature. But that’s an illusion. Macon finds himself walking out of his box without effort, finding that he doesn’t have to always this or never that. His character is more fluid than he’d ever believed. And I’ve been finding the same. All we have to do to change is stop labeling ourselves and say yes where we’ve always said no.

So I’m glad that The Accidental Tourist was placed in my line of sight and I’m glad that I said yes to it. Now back to the writing.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning, Midnight is the disjointed story of a woman drinking too much in Paris.  We can’t say, and she probably can’t either, whether the misery in her life has caused the drinking or the other way around.  She seems to have been always lost, now found only through the alcohol.  It’s a lovingly accurate portrait of a disintegrating alcoholic, but I have trouble with stories written in this vague literary style.  The anal-compulsive in me likes to understand exactly what is happening now, what happened then, and in what order and why.  But then, life isn’t really like that, is it? It’s also hard to like the main character–not hard to sympathize, but hard to like. She’s a bundle of unhappy memories and fears with no redeeming hope or joy. This is intentional, no doubt, but it makes for a sad book.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

The Woods is the second book I’ve read by Harlan Coben.  This one was just as entertaining but had fewer implausible coincidences so I enjoyed it even more.  The story centers around a crime that occurred 20 years in the past and a current day rape trial that is causing the past to resurface.  The rape trial, which starts the book, gets shuffled a little too much to the side for a while, but all the threads come together in the end.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I didn’t expect the lead characters to be back in the arena themselves for the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, but she figured out a way to get them there.  Now I’m wondering if she can pull it off for the third book.  There was plenty of excitement and adventure in this book, and her story lines gain momentum when the games are being played.

The ending seemed hectically rushed.  There were no long chapters of wrapping up and resolution, just a couple of quick paragraphs to catch the reader up on a wealth of backstory that had been occurring unseen (though not completely unguessed) throughout the book.  Now we wait for the third installment (not yet published) to find out how she wraps up a complex set of story lines.  The romantic triangle seems unsolvable.  It’s hard not to root for Peeta since he’s the love interest we see the most of.

See Them Die by Ed McBain

See Them Die is one of McBain’s more artistic works.  There’s no mystery, just a series of events that play out over the course of a hot morning and afternoon in the city.  It examines themes of racism in the context of how juveline delinquents are inevitably created in certain environments.

When my friend Sheila gave me a nice hardcover edition for Christmas, I thought I hadn’t read it, but once I started it did become familiar.  Maybe there aren’t any unread McBain’s out there for me.  But this was a great one to re-read and the edition is a big upgrade from my tattered paperback.

The Hunger Games

Warning: spoilers (if you can’t guess the ending by chapter 2)

The Hunger Games is the first book in the latest sub-adult series to hit it big with audiences of all ages.  I didn’t realize that Hunger Games was considered Young Adult until I went to look for its sequel and had to find my way over to that section.  Compared to the early Harry Potters, which were clearly written for children, or Twilight, which has unquestionable appeal for teenage girls, Hunger Games seemed pretty adult to me.  Yes, the protagonists were children/teens, but the writing level was up to adult speeds and the themes are pretty grown-up.  Except that, as with Twilight, no one is getting it on.

My only gripe with Hunger Games is that it’s monumentally predictable.  That she will win, we can guess.  That somehow he’s not going to die either, we can assume.  That they’ll fall in love?  Well, she managed to surprise me there only by ending the book without a decision.  I didn’t realize going into this book that it was a series.  I now see the impending love triangle, but I also see a lot of potential for some more serious themes.  Future installments won’t just be a glimpse into the future of reality TV.  I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith

Havana Bay is by the author of Gorky Park, which I’d read before, and features the same Russian detective. In this story, he travels to Cuba. I guess since communism is gone in Russia, the author had to move his story line. Politically based mysteries aren’t really my favorite but as a spy story, Havana Bay is not high in convoluted plotting. As a novel, the characters are interesting and the story unfurls at an unrushed but attention-keeping pace. When finished, you remember the detective’s inner drama more than whodunit, which is more satisfying (and allows you to read the book again some day).

Hold Tight by Harlan Coben

Hold Tight was a fast-paced good read. It starts with the question of whether parents are right to spy on their teenage son who appears to be going bad. It ends up all over the place with one unlikely coincidence/event leading to another, yet it hung together and kept my interest. I liked the twist at the end. The characters were multi-dimensional and yet still sympathetic.

My father lent me this one while I was visiting and now he’s passed on another one to me, so I’ll be reading more by this author.