Friday, February 27, 2009

Book #17 (5K Book #5): "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" by Gregory Maguire

Bwaha. I did it! 5 books in two weeks. 2000 pages of sometimes horrible, sometimes awesome literature. I don't think I'll be trying it again (my eyes, they are weak) but it was a fun exercise and it gave me something to do. On to the review.

What a strange, wonderful and disturbing book this was. I finished it this morning, and the first thing I can think of to tell you is to not start your day with this book. It will mess you up.

Gregory Maguire is well known for taking traditional, over-sweetened fairy tales and rewriting them in a style reminiscent of those "E! True Hollywood Story" shows--real, dark and gritty. I read "Wicked" (the "true" story of the Wicked Witch of the East from the Wizard of Oz) a few years ago, and loved it, despite it being very dark, depressing, and a bit confusing. Maguire took the entire mythology of Oz (the movie, at least) and turned it upside down, putting the characters in a truly frightening, depraved world that was violent and sunk into political intrigue. It was a fantastic book, though it lost a little steam towards the end, and it was certainly memorable enough to make me want to read more of his books.

In "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister", Maguire takes this same idea of telling the "true" stories behind fairytales, and produces another amazing piece of work. In this case, he uses the story of Cinderella, the story of the perfect girl with the evil stepmother and the ugly stepsisters, who charms her prince thanks to a fairy godmother and the help of a glass slipper. Maguire's version is nowhere near this happy.

The "real" story takes place in Holland. The Fisher family, Margarethe (the mother) and her two daughters, Iris and Ruth, land in Haarlem after escaping persecution in England. They are penniless and are forced to beg for shelter in the streets. They are taken in by a tortured painter who lets them stay in his house in exchange for housekeeping and for letting Iris sit for him for paintings and studies. Iris is plain and ungainly, but smart, and her sister Ruth is a huge, mentally challenged girl who is considered nothing but a burden by her mother. Margarethe is conniving and largely unsympathetic, always trying to find a way to get ahead by whatever means necessary. Eventually, the girls and their mother are admitted into the service of the wealthy Van de Meer family, who hope that Iris will befriend their sheltered, beautiful daughter Clara. A while later, Clara's mother dies, Margarethe marries the widower and thus becomes the evil stepmother in the story, with Clara being the tortured Cinderella. Clara becomes a servant by her own will, however, tired of being admired and used for her looks alone, and Margarethe is more than happy to beat down the girl who once held such a high place. The climax of the book takes place at a ball, of course, but other than in the basic points, this story has nothing to do with the Cinderella we all know.

The world that Maguire creates is superficially bland and common, but underneath it's full of demons and imps, a place where everyone has bad intentions and no one is ever truly happy. It's a dirty, cynical world that Iris (the main character of the book) carefully observes, disgusted but helpless at her mother's (and other people's) actions. Iris's plainness, which she considers so crippling, is contrasted to Clara's beauty, crippling in its own way. Clara is largely unhappy, even more after her mother dies, and she is largely useless in the world except as a beautiful thing coveted by everyone who sees her. Iris is smart and witty, and she comes to understand that being as beautiful as Clara is isn't something to be envied but pitied, something that makes her angry and sad at the same time. These are two wonderfully written characters, neither completely likable or sympathetic (though Iris is by far a more approachable character) played against each other as they try to survive Margarethe's plots, dealing with an ugly world that is particularly harsh towards women.

There are all sorts of twists and turns to the story, with Maguire mixing in bits of myths and superstitions, sometimes so well that it's easy to confuse reality with things that the characters are making up. He is a hugely talented, imaginative and original writer, and I can easily say I've never read anything like this book before. It's a better work than "Wicked", more realistic and coherent, a quick read if you want it to be, though you're likely to miss little hints and details if you don't read it slowly. And as I said before, it's not a happy or light-hearted book at all, but it's a unique take on an old story, and a truly great, memorable read. It's a good reminder that all fairy-tales came from somewhere, and that it's likely that not all of them ended with a happily-ever-after.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Movie Review in 3 minutes:

Watched 'Across the Universe' last night. And as much as I love Julie Taymor and her particular brand of colorful and crazy films, this was a misfire. In so many ways. The music was fantastic, obviously, and the singing is beautiful and moving. So it's too bad that the plot is a mess, that some scenes are a little too weird, and that it goes on for way too long. It was like one overlong music video, and halfway through I had given up on trying to care about the characters. Great idea, pretty visuals, but overall it just doesn't work. Too bad.

Mr. Controversy just reminded me of two glaringly bad things about this movie: Eddie Izzard and Bono. I love Eddie Izzard, but that was way too bizarre. And Bono butchering 'I am the Walrus' was more than I could take. I hate that man so much it makes me look truly evil.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book #16 (5K #4): "When the Wind Blows" by James Patterson

I've been staring at the screen for five minutes, trying to think of a way to start this review. It should be easy. The amount of disgust, rage, and half-amused, half-horrified disbelief this book built up in me should easily produce a long stream of insults against such a hideous piece of work. And I'm sure it'll be easy. But how to begin? How to begin reviewing the worst piece of writing I have ever read from a man who dares to call himself a professional author? A best-selling professional author?

I'll start with the "plot". Then I'll move on to the really good stuff. Because, by jeebus, I have so much ridicule to spew forth against this book that I can hardly contain myself.

It's Colorado. A quiet, pretty little town surrounded by quiet, pretty forests. There's Frannie, a quiet, pretty veterinarian, whose husband was mysteriously killed. She is all good and sweet, nary a interesting, original word ever leaving her mouth ("I bent down, and grabbed the "mourning" paper, as I call the Post, since it's always so full of bad news.") There's Kit, a sexy, handsome ("...the sexiest, the best man I had ever known. I was so sure of it. Oh, I was sure.") loose-cannon of a man. He's an FBI agent who has decided to investigate the nasty, mysterious dealings going on in the quiet Colorado town. And there's Max, a beautiful 11 year old girl who has wings.*


Yeah. Apparently some evil scientists have decided to take the next step in evolution and make bird/human hybrids in their secret lab in this quiet Colorado town. Max ("...which wasn't short for Maxine, or Maximilian, but for Maximum. Maybe because she always gave her all. She always went for it. Just as she was doing right now.") escapes the lab with her little brother. Mean guards are sent after them. Everyone must be killed!

After a long series of short, stupid, pointless chapters setting up the characters, Frannie meets up with Kit and they decide to find the girl with wings and help her escape from the bad meanie guys. Horrible, funny stuff happens!

As you see, not only is the plot ludicrous and unoriginal, but it's also peopled by some truly ridiculous characters, all buffeted along by Patterson's truly deplorable brand of writing, which is far below the level of an 18 year freshman in his first college-writing course. Hell, I wrote better stuff than this when I was 13 and didn't speak English too well. Every character, every situation, is written by Patterson in short, choppy sentences (which you'd think would make for a fast read, but are strong together so poorly that they feel like speed bumps), in the most hilariously simple language, commas and exclamation points running rampant. Patterson doesn't believe in carefully explaining and drawing out a situation. Oh, no. That would actually require effort. Instead of building tension and letting the reader form his or her mental image of a situation through subtle and careful use of language, Patterson decides to bludgeon home every single point he tries to make. A perfect example:

"...So Max rolled real fast off the sofa...A metal chair came crashing through the window! Reflexively, she threw her arms over her face."


"Real fast"? what grown person dares to write a sentence like that? Does Mr Patterson honestly think we can't figure out that whatever happened was surprising, so he needs to insert an exclamation point there? Did he never take a class on proper use of grammar? Apparently not. He leaves off question marks at the end of questions, he uses adverbs like he's afraid he'll run out and his sentences are so poorly constructed they'd make anyone with half a brain want to cry. I know I'm no expert, but at least I know that questions should end with question marks. Among his other sins are repeating sentences over and over again, as if it's the only way to emphasize a point he can think of. He also peppers the book with pathetic allusions to pop-culture, which might've been relevant in the 90s (Power Rangers, for one) but only serve to age this sad little book. He clumsily keeps switching narrative perspectives, from Frannie's first-person narration to the massively dumbed-down point of view of an 11 year old girl, to a macho, oh-so-daring style for Kit. And they're all equally bad and uninteresting.

The book is a mess. One big, stinking, festering mess. I spent more time laughing and quoting particularly bad passages to my friends than I did caring about anything that was happening in the book. And that was a good thing, because if I had spent more time trying to comprehend the incredible stupidity of the plot and the characters on my own, I would've set this book on fire. As it happened, I only threw the book against the wall. Hard.

Don't read it. Don't let your friends read it. Don't read anything by Mr Patterson. Don't encourage him. For the love of everything holy, someone make this man stop writing things like this:

She was angry now. She wasn't going to die like this! No way was she going to cooperate with that lousy plan of theirs!
Max flapped her wings fast and real hard at the last possible second. The soldier or guard raised his head to look.
"Geronimo, asshole!" she yelled.
Fwap! Fwap! Fwap!
Max hit the man like a large, falling rock. His goggles flew off his face. The big, bad rifle spun away, too."


A best-selling author, ladies and gentlemen. Best-selling author. Isn't it depressing?

*Note: all the adjectives used in these two paragraphs were courtesy of the great James Patterson Repository of the Simplest of Simple Adjectives and How to Use them 1500 Times in One Book! Thanks, James!

PS: No, I am not making up any of these quotes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Obligatory Oscar Post and Picture Spam!



This is what I wore last night:

Badgley Mischka. Why, yes, it was the first outfit I picked out.

Anyway, the Oscars were a little strange. I liked that the show was a lot more lively, and they made some nice choices (Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway's intro was fantastic, the Slumdog/Wall-E musical number was great, the pace was good) but some serious, serious missteps in their efforts to be all hip and cool and get more viewers to watch. People have been saying for years and years that the three worst things about the Oscars is that they're too self-congratulatory, there are too many stupid montages and they're full of bad musical numbers.

And that's exactly what they had more of. *facepalm*

The 'tribute to musicals' number was ridiculous and painful, what with the Disney tween stars fucking around for absolutely no reason at all. The musical is back this year? Bitches, the musical was back with Moulin Rouge. Don't play that game.

The speeches to each of the nominees were nice at first, but went on way too long, seemed pointless, and I missed the clips for each of the nominees that they usually do. That was one tradition I loved, and they took it away. These people really don't know how to do these things.

But overall, I was pretty happy with the awards. They were a bit predictable, but I was happy at all the love that was thrown at Slumdog Millionaire, which was a seriously perfect movie that I'm watching again today. I loved it so much, guys, and it deserved every award it got, and more.

And God, I love Kate Winslet. It was about damned time she got an Oscar, and she looked gorgeous and charming when she won. So very happy about that, too.

Oh and we can't forget the pretty, pretty dresses.

My top five Best Dressed:

1) Taraji P. Henson:

Oooh, but this was a gorgeous dress. The way it fit her, the color, the way it moved, everything. This woman has one genius of a stylist.

2) Kate Winslet:

Love the color, love the styling, love the hair. She has this whole Grace Kelly thing going on that is perfect on her, and she looked stunning. How can you not love this woman?

3) Evan Rachel Wood:

I don't even know her that much, but damn, she looks like what a movie star should look like. Her whole look is glamorous and beautiful. I'm glad she moved out of her bizarre Marilyn Manson stage.

4) Sean Penn:

Love him or hate him, Penn looked just spiffy last night. The all-black thing is great on him, and he looked well-put together and handsome. Oh, and it took me way too long to recognize Robin Wright Penn. She looks...strange.

5) Josh Brolin and Diane Lane:

To hell with Brad and Angelina. This was hands down the best-looking couple out there last night, no competition. And Diane Lane will never stop being gorgeous.

Honorable mentions:
1) Natalie Portman in a gorgeous pink number
2) Marion Cotillard in that crazy dress of hers

Bottom Five (Worst Dressed):

1) Miley Cyrus in a hideous bedazzled-scallop outfit she could barely walk in:

It was way too much for anyone, let alone a 16 year old Disney bimbo with no talent who has no business being anywhere near the Oscars.

2) Vanessa Hudgens in one big mess of a dress:

Another pretty young girl who wore something that was way too old for her. Not to mention the fact that there's just too much to that dress, and it looks choppy and confusing.

3) Beyonce wearing shiny upholstery that was way too tight for her:

Woman, you have a gorgeous body. Why do you want to look like a sausage? A mermaid sausage? Does she ever wear anything other than mermaid dresses? Big blah to this one. Every time they focused on her during the Red Carpet coverage she looked like she could hardly breathe, and her moves were that robotic sort that every girl who has ever worn a dress that was too tight knows about. Bad, bad choice.

4) WHY is Sarah Jessica Parker considered a style icon? Everything she wears is hideous:

Eugh. Ugly, messy and far too princessy for any grown woman. And I kept expecting her boobs to pop out of that thing. They looked like they were in pain. The worst part is that people are probably going to be cooing over how great she looked.

5) Heidi Klum in this big 'ol cheap mess of a thing:

Heidi Klum can wear anything. ANYTHING. So why does she choose to wear a weirdly-cut napkin pinned in all the wrong places? The hair and makeup were hideous as well, and so were the excessive amounts of jewelry.

I was going to have Marissa Tomei somewhere on this list, but the more I look at her bizarre, art-deco dress the more I love it. Plus, I love Marissa Tomei and don't want to be mean to her.

Dishonorable Mentions:
1) Anne Hathaway. Blah blah blaaaaaaaah. Boring.
2) Reese Witherspoon. What the fuck kind of a mess was she wearing? Didn't rank higher because she didn't show up much.
3) Frieda Pinto. She looked like she had lost a sleeve. Which was really too bad, as she's a gorgeous girl who's been one of the best dressed this awards season. But...misstep.


For always being so weirdly awesome that I don't know whether to put her in best or worst outfits of the night, because she has her own category of awesomeness...

Tilda Swinton:

Woo! Planet Swinton must be one hell of a fun place.


Thus endeth my moment as fashion guru.

It was overall a fun night, with much sillyness and overdone Hollywood spectacle, which is why I love the Oscars so much in the first place.

A thousand congratulations to Slumdog Millionaire and my directorial crush Danny Boyle. May you all continue to make perfect little movies like this one.

Figgy out. *

*Glargh. I can't believe I did that. And by the way, how awesome was Brad Pitt barely acknowledging Ryan Seacrest during the Red Carpet? I don't like Pitt but damn, anyone who disses that little shrimp as he so rightly deserves gets props in my book.

PS: Speaking of Brangelina, someone should really check that all the Slumdog Millionaire kids made it safely back to their parents. I thought I caught a glint in her eye that just said "Oooh! I could add a little Indian to my collection!"

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book #15 (5K book #3): 'The Rescue' by Nicholas Sparks

I'm sure there are a lot of people who loved this book. I'm sure there are people who cried, and laughed, and declared this to be a beautiful story about destiny and love. Enough people to make it a #1 New York Times Best Seller.

What is wrong with these people?

'The Rescue' isn't a horrible book. It's just predictable, boring and disgustingly cheesy. It's sentimental pap, a book where absolutely nothing happens, where each character is perfectly harmless and unremarkable. You know exactly what's going to happen in the story after reading the first five pages, and it's just a matter of getting through 400 pages (good lord...400 pages? why?) of overdone sentimentality and blandness to get to the happy ending.

Denise Holton is a single mother. Her 4 year old son, Kyle, has a serious speech disability, that requires her constant attention, leaving her little room for anything else in her life. One night while driving home, they get into a bad accident, and are promptly rescued by an non-threatening, very masculine volunteer firefighter named Taylor. We learn almost immediately that he's single, loves his mother and loves rescuing women. Of course, love ensues.

The rest of the book is pretty much everything you'd expect. Sparks sticks to the formula so faithfully that I found myself skipping pages of useless information, knowing that I was missing nothing but filler. Taylor (who has a secret he refuses to reveal to anyone but turns out to not be that big a deal) and Denise have their 'endearing' courtship, they fall in love. Taylor is of course great with the kid. Then something starts driving them apart, they fall out of love, heartbreak follows. But from the lack of extra characters to add potential conflict, and the dwindling amount of pages, you know that there's not much that can happen. Either they get back together or someone dies. And we can't leave the charming heroine all alone in the end, can we?

But I can't even be bothered to be very angry with this book. Everything is so harmless, so bland that you just end up not caring about anything that happens. Nothing about this book is worth getting excited about--something could've been done with the courtship, but both these characters are so perfectly good that Sparks just has them fall perfectly and harmlessly in love. He is obviously selling a wish-fulfillment fantasy to his choice audience; a fantasy where a rugged, sensitive man comes along to rescue the damsel in distress, where love is pure and fated. And aren't all of his books like that? Isn't that exactly why so many people love them?

Sparks knows his audience. He knows exactly how to write for them, and he'll keep making millions while every one of his novels gets turned into a movie shot in soft-focus with harmless actors. He's obviously not writing for me, so I'll just move along and completely forget I ever read this book. It's not worth the aggravation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Figgy's List of Grievances

Things That Piss Me Off (#1)

Calling me out of the blue for the first time in months (during which you've completely ignored my existence), pretending to be all chummy and BFFs, only to ask me for a favor. Then, expect me to do it for you willingly and happily, after which you can just go back to ignoring me until you need me again.

Screw you. I'd help you, but you lost me when you acted like you had just seen me yesterday and like you were really concerned about my well-being when all you needed was to use me. That's not friendship, that's just using people for your convenience.

I'm not an idiot, so don't be a hypocrite. I hate hypocrites.

The End.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book #14 (5K Book #2): 'The Testament' by John Grisham

Well, this was a pleasant surprise!

When I uncovered this book, lying forgotten in the depths of my parents' bookshelf as I scoured for new reads, I came very close to putting it back. Grisham? sigh. Another legal thriller with the predictable courtroom scenes, cliched lawyers, and painful bumps from the repeated slamming my head against a desk for being stupid enough to read another one of these.

So, you see, I was a bit predisposed to hate it. And then I remembered I had only read one Grisham book before, 'The Rainmaker', and it had been about 10 years and perhaps my memory was a little clouded from bad movie adaptations of Grisham's books. So I bucked up and gave it a try.

And boy, did I feel like an idiot for hating on it before I knew anything about it. Because while this wasn't a brilliant book, it was a hell of an entertaining read, well written and crafted, and I zoomed through it in only a couple of days, enjoying every bit of it.

The book hits the ground running. An incredibly rich, incredibly mean old man named Troy Phelan is about to die and reveal his new will to his heirs. He hates all six of his children and his three ex-wives, and they hate him in return. Each of his sons and daughters squandered the money they received when they turned 21, they're failures in every sense of the word, with massive amounts of debt they hope to be relieved of when their father dies. Of course, the evil old man decides to screw his children one more time and leaves them practically nothing, signing over his fortune to an illegitimate daughter no one knew existed.

Ha-HA! Evil old man for the win!

And that's just the first act. The rest of the book takes turns between telling of Phelans' lawyers' attempts to find the illegitimate daughter in the depths of the Brazilian jungle (where she is a catholic missionary to the native tribes there) and the Phelan heirs' battle to get their father's money. Surprisingly, both plots are equally engaging and entertaining. The scenes in the jungle, though they take place for the most part on a dingy river boat, are exciting and Grisham does a great job of setting the scenery and taking us into the Brazilian jungle. The scenes in the courtrooms and the lawyers' offices are just as interesting, as they try increasingly nasty means of getting at the money. Grisham makes some nice parallels between the natural, frightening dangers of the jungle and the even scarier brutality of the lawyers, cynical, greedy and completely despicable.

Grisham really sets a great rhythm for the story, and it never slows down or becomes bogged down in legalese or ridiculous courtroom scenes. It's fast-paced and keeps you guessing what's coming up next, making it a fast and overall entertaining read. I was honestly surprised and pleased to find out that Grisham wasn't a hack, as I feared he would be (I'm not even sure WHY I was afraid he was, I don't exactly recall anyone ever hating on his work) and that he's a good writer who clearly knows what he's doing. I'm not sure if I dare pick up another one of his books but I'm glad I tried this one. There's my crippling fear of disappointment and losing my respect for a writer I suddenly like showing up. I should know better than to be this pessimistic, shouldn't I?

On to the next adventure!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book #13 (5K Book #1): 'The First Wive's Club' by Olivia Goldsmith

Finally, a good book!

Most you have probably seen (or at least heard of) the movie 'The First Wive's Club'. Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler playing women who are suddenly abandoned and divorced by their husbands and who then decide to take revenge. The movie is funny and quirky, not brilliant but a lot of fun, the women's revenge light hearted and comedic. All ends well and everyone's happy.

The book is a little different. While the plot is basically the same, the mood is quite different, and while still funny, the world of the First Wives is a lot colder and more cynical than in the film.

The story follows three women; Annie, Brenda and Elise, all with very different personalities and backgrounds. Each is in turn abandoned or betrayed by their husbands, all three humiliated by the men they helped bring up from obscurity into the rich and exclusive world of New York society. The wives are all angry and despondent but don't know what to do about it, until one of their mutual friends commits suicide after a life of being horribly treated by her husband. Seeing the common threads in their stories, the three women decide to get together and form a club, whose ultimate goal is to destroy their friend's former husband, and pay back their own exes in ways that will hurt them the most. They manage to do this with a lot of cooperation between them, a lot of money from helpful family members, and some very vicious financial and legal moves that the husbands never suspected the women to be capable of. It's a vicious fight on both sides, but Goldsmith never lets us doubt for a moment that the men had it coming all along; the wives only want what's fair.

The book's mood is almost that of a dark comedy, with Goldsmith digging into the heart of New York high society and all its dirty vices-- there's drugs, alcohol, dark secrets and shady dealings going on in a struggle for power and social status. She takes the reader into a very cynical, cold-hearted world where people only seem to get ahead by backstabbing each other, and most of the supporting characters are unlikeable and truly vicious. The three main characters aren't painted as perfect angels, either, and though Annie's goodness is sometimes a little irritating it's a nice contrast to the other two women's stronger personalities. Goldsmith gives the book great balance between cynicism and amusement; while she paints the world of the wealthy as fun and insane, she lets us know that there's massive flaws and that most people in it are very unhappy.

This was a very entertaining read. It's dark, funny and sometimes a little disturbing. Most importantly though, it's a great book about three women tired of being used who decide to stand up and fight for themselves, helping each other and ultimately winning the battle.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book #12: 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham

From now on it'll be the 5 reviews for the 5K Marathon. Already have one book read, am halfway through another!

'The Hours' is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel about three women living in three different eras. The first is Virginia Woolf, living in an isolated house in Richmond, England, as she starts to write what would be her last novel, "Mrs Dalloway". The second is a housewife in the 50s named Laura Brown, whom we are first introduced to as she reads "Mrs Dalloway". The third is Clarissa Vaughan, living in modern-day New York City, who starts the day the same was as the title character in Woolf's novel; by going out to buy flowers for a party.

The book follows the three women through the course of a day, as they go through their lives in vastly different circumstances and eras but very similar circumstances. All three are settled into their lives, outwardly accepting of the roles they have taken, but internally battling against what has become of their lives. Woolf battles sickness and impending depression, while trying hard to act outwardly normal so she will be allowed to return to her life in London. Laura has the idyllic suburban lifestyle of the 50s; a comfortable home, a loving husband and a young son, but feels trapped and profoundly unhappy for reason she can't quite understand. Clarissa is a wealthy New York society woman, with a loving partner and a very comfortable lifestyle, but she is worried about becoming older and whether she fits into the world she lives in, all while taking care of a dying poet, Richard. The three women are loved and cared for by devoted men and women, but they all want something more, they live their lives dreaming of the past or what could be or would have been, and Cunningham does an impressive job of taking us inside each of the minds of these women. They're each complex, beautifully written characters, and Cunningham subtly and expertly brings their stories together through small details and large plot points.

It's a great book, but maybe not for everyone. The writing is beautiful but can sometimes be almost rambling, with every object the women see being contemplated and thought about. I loved the small asides, as they were realistic to how a person's mind works (anything can trigger a memory or a chain of thought), but it might try some readers' patience. It's a short book, but not one you can really get through quickly. It's thoughtful and moving, absolutely character-driven and so might not be to some people's tastes. I'd highly recommend it if you need something slower and emotional, though it can get a little sad at times. But it’s a seriously great work, and I'd really love to read more of Cunningham's work.

Book #11: 'How to Be Lost' by Amanda Eyre Ward

Note: I've started doing the Cannonball Read 5K (5 books in 2 weeks, each 400 pages long) and am posting my first review later today. This one was done a few days ago and I completely forgot to read it. Have to do the review for 'The Hours' as well. After that, the reviews will be for the 5 books.

"How to be Lost" by Amanda Eyre Ward

It's been only two weeks, but I've almost completely forgotten what this book was about. I read it very quickly, and on the whole it was just mediocre, bland and forgettable, nothing remarkable. Another strike in my Cannonball List.

Flipping through it, I vaguely remembered what little plot there was. Caroline Winters is a single, 30-something year old daughter of a filthy rich family from upstate New York. Yet for some reason she works as a waitress in a sad bar in New Orleans, living in a sad apartment with a sad cat and no love life. It isn't until about halfway through the book that we finally get to learn why Caroline lives like this—her 5 year old sister, Ellie, disappeared out of the blue almost 15 years ago. On top of that, her father was an abusive alcoholic, her mother is a depressed, rich widow living by herself in a huge New York house, and her sister is married and pregnant and seems constantly depressed. In fact, everyone in this book is constantly sad. Everything that happens is dull and sad. Everyone Caroline meets is sad. Everything she does is sad. And I didn't even care.

The book is kind of a mess. The first part had me thinking this was going to be yet another tale of a sad spinster who only needs to take control of her life to be happy, who is constantly talking about her messed-up family and the many woes of her life. And that thought held through when Caroline goes to visit her family for Christmas. What's so wrong with her family, I wondered? They were a little strange, yes, but nothing to explain the tension Ward kept inserting into their conversations. It made absolutely no sense. It's only then that she randomly introduces the main conflict of the little sister's disappearance. Um, ok…ay? I remember thinking. It just didn't fit at all. It felt forced and cloying, trying to tug at your heartstrings in an obvious and clunky manner. She then (again, rather randomly) has Caroline's mother find a photograph of a girl in Montana who could be Ellie, and so Caroline decides to drop everything in her life and take off to Montana to find her. I guess it's ok to do that when you work as a waitress but have your mother's fortune behind her.

This second part of the book is horrible. Caroline gets to Montana and wanders around for a while, and then bam! Finds some girl who might or might not be Ellie. She doesn't really seem to care much. I cared even less. It was filler and nothing else, because from the first we know the truth, and this girl's story never goes anywhere. Caroline gives up and goes back. That's it. A completely irrelevant, uninteresting trip that only serves to remind us what a sad sack Caroline is.

In between chapters, Ward does something that's odd, distracting and just very clumsy. She inserts letters from some woman named Agnes Fowler, to various characters we never get to meet. The tone of them makes it seem like they're written by a lonely octogenarian librarian, but we eventually learn that this is only a very strange 20 year old girl. Who doesn't remember her mother. Whose father was very protective and would never let her go outside. Who doesn't remember much about her life before she was 6 or 7. Do I really need to tell you what the big 'twist' at the end is? Yeah. That's how painful and obvious it was.

I just never got what this book was supposed to be about, or how I was supposed to feel about it. Ward is constantly changing her tone and manner of writing; going from present tense to awkwardly placed flashbacks and then the letters. I could see what she was going for, it's just not very well done at all. Ward wants to go for sad and touching, and instead it's dull and uninteresting, cheap and awkward sentimentality.

I'm not saying losing a sister isn't something we can all sympathize with, it's just that Ward's writing is so clunky and painfully sentimental that she never really connects with the reader. The book is just nothing remarkable. There's nothing new or interesting or intriguing about it, just bland and forgettable.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Book #10: Guilty as Sin by Tami Hoag

Oh, what a disappointment this was. After the hilarious, I-can't-believe-I'm-reading-this monstrosity, it's-so-bad-it's-awesome tour de force that was 'Night Sins', I was expecting a lot more out of you, Miss Hoag. I was expecting a fast-paced, well thought-out plot hidden beneath a layer of soap opera characters and horrible dialogue, something that would be as mindlessly entertaining as the first part of this series. But you disappointed me. The interesting story that was left in a cliffhanger in the first book is taken up again in 'Night Sins' and changed into a dull, uninteresting, predictable courtroom drama that I almost didn't finish reading. That's how little I cared about it.

There's not even a whole lot of plot. The likely kidnapper from the first book has been arrested, and it is up to tough, independent (what…again?) assistant County Attorney Ellen North to get him convicted. She is practically all alone as the handsome, shark-like defending attorney (a walking cliché if I ever saw one) woos a painfully stupid judge to his side as well as the press and most of the community. No one around her thinks that Ellen can convict this guy, except of course the two cops who captured him as he was fleeing the scene and a handsome, rugged and mysterious(what…again?!) writer with a past who is constantly attempting to seduce this woman. Because she so badly needs it, you know. The whole book is a slow, painful dullfest as Ellen tries to build her case against the suspect while the cops try to find the guy's accomplice and solve another kidnapping. It's full of dead ends and 'surprise' twists that are completely ineffective and predictable, and only one sex scene. I mean, come on, Tami Hoag. There is a reason why people read your books, and it ain't for your insights of the judicial system.

The biggest problem with the book, really, is that we know that the guy is guilty. We know because we read the whole damned prequel, and it's just plain boring and frustrating to read the stupid roadblocks Hoag throws in Ellen's way. The other problem is that the characters from the prequels, who we had come to at least be interested in, are completely relegated to the background, showing up every now and then to do absolutely nothing. Instead, Hoag brings up an entire new set of clichéd characters—the eager reporter, the mysterious writer, the evil defending lawyer, the bumbling country boss—that aren't in the least bit interesting or realistic. The whole thing feels like a really bad episode of some 90s courtroom drama that you watch on reruns at midnight because you have nothing better to do, that you keep watching because you just want to see the end, even if you don't give a damn about any of the people involved.

It's a bad book. And believe me, I love a so-bad-it's-good read as much as the next masochistic fool, but if you just go for mediocre and dull, then I don't even want to know you. If you're gonna go for bad make it awesomely bad. At least try to entertain me. I hope for Hoag's sake that she went back to her romance/suspense novels and stayed far away from pretending to be John Grisham. One should always stick to one's strengths.

And give me more than one bad sex scene. Sheesh, woman. Know your audience!

Monday, February 9, 2009

In which figgy goes shopping...doesn't like it.


I went dress shopping today. I need a dress for my friend Michelle's wedding next Saturday (so you know what I'll be doing on V-Day), so I decided to brave the Mall and torture myself with the usual experience of shopping for things in my size.

The awesome news: I've lost six pounds and gone from a 14 to a 12. I don't know how this happened, all I know is that the 14s were all loose on me and the 12s fit me perfectly.

The not-so-awesome-but-still-pretty-good news: My boobs are still way too big to fit into most dresses.

I kept staring at them all angrily. There were a couple of gorgeous dresses that fit me everywhere, except that they pushed my boobs up to my neck and I could barely breathe. DAMNIT. And there was this one pretty dress that had some ridiculous padding in the chest area so that it made it look like I had badly stuffed kleenex in them. Hello, I don't NEED any more.

Oh it was horrible. I mean, I'm not really complaining (OH NO I HAVE BREASTS WOE), it can just be frustrating. And I don't get it. If you're making a dress that fits more curvy figures, why the HELL do you make the bust an A cup? DOES NOT COMPUTE.

There was also the awesomeness of having the zipper on one dress get STUCK on its way down and having to get the saleslady (thankfully she was uber-nice about it) AND my mom into the dressing room to try and get it down. IT WAS STUCK. For like 5 minutes the damned thing wouldn't move. I think we got it off out of sheer willpower.

Anyway. I hate shopping. It's torture and I don't like spending money. Whenever some cheap chick flick touts the supposedly 'universal' truth that all women love to shop, I want to punch somebody in the face. I was very glad, however, to see that SOME of the best stores at the mall are catering to normal-sized women and selling things over a size 8. Very awesome clothes, too. Need moneys.

I love the dress I bought. It was one of the first I tried on, but I decided to keep going for about....oh, 8 or 10 more before I decided that I don't care if maybe it isn't so formal for a night wedding (it's an off-white background with a large sunflower print over it), as everyone's gonna be sloshed anyway and I'll probably never see those people again in my life. All I know is that I look damn good in it (seriously it has this awesome 60's silhouette that I love) and it's very me and I can wear it again.

I seriously need my own stylist, and a tailor/designer. That would be sweet.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Breaking News!

Stop the presses! Stop the presses! Breaking, hugely important mondo news breaking!


Wait for it.

Wait for iiiiiit...

OK. First of all, I've decided to kick Gerard Butler off my Freebies List. Gerard, sweetcakes, you're very gorgeous and very sexy, but I just couldn't be with a man who'd stoop to doing a romantic comedy with Katherine 'Rainbow Killer' Heigl. Have you no shame? Have you no dignity?

No! I don't want to hear excuses. You're gone. Off you go. Don't give me that look. You know what you did. Take your cape with you. Mmhmm.


Second, and most important of all, a highly coveted spot on my Freebies List has opened up. Who shall be the lucky man to join the high, exclusive ranks of that pedestal of sexyness, among such wonders as Christian Bale, Eric Bana, Reynaldo Giannechini the other guy was?

Ladies and Gentlepervs, I present to you the marvel that is Jon Hamm:

I will give you a moment to stare and sigh in a dreamy fashion.

All done? good. OK you can stare some more.

I'm probably late to the Jon Hamm love fest, but please don't hate on me for that. My cheapo latin-american HBO has just now decided to run the first season of Mad Men over again, as preparation for their 'premiering' the second season this Sunday. So I've been catching up, completely hooked from the very first episode.

On a serious note, this show is fantastic, impeccably written and exciting, with gorgeous production values and simply the best drama I've seen in years. It reminds me of the West Wing at its peak, when everything the characters said was pitch-perfect and it completely grabbed and held your attention for 40 minutes. It is seriously a great show.

Mr Hamm is just a perk, you know. His character is a jerk sometimes, of course, so please don't think I'm letting his prettiness erase whatever he does. It just...well, it's just entrancing, really. The man is simply lovely.

And then after last night's episode he showed up on Conan and joked all charmingly about Tina Fey and his own handsomeness and even Conan looked like he wanted to squee.

So yes. Welcome to my Freebies List, Jon Hamm. Fastest rise to the top out of all the other four, so you should totally feel honored.

Now, shall we go into my office?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Book #9: "Night Sins" by Tami Hoag

And now for something completely different!

Ooh boy. Have you heard of Tami Hoag? I hadn't. I had no idea she's a relatively famous writer of crime/suspense novels. And I had no idea she started her career writing serialized romance novels. And…boy, does it show. I haven't the slightest clue as to what this book was doing in a forgotten corner of our library, or who brought it in. All I know is that I was scanning for my next book and I liked the cover. Hey, my options are limited.

Night Sins is, in essence, the story of a kidnapping and the efforts made to recover him. The plot itself is actually quite good, it's well paced and just intriguing enough, and Tami Hoag has obviously done some careful research of police investigations and procedures. When she's focusing on the actual kidnapping, Hoag is more than a competent writer, and the book is surprisingly gripping and entertaining.

When, however, Hoag decides to focus on her characters, particularly the two leads, a fiercely independent female field agent Megan O'Malley and the dark, dangerous and attractive (of course) chief of Police, Mitch Holt, the book falls into hilarious and ridiculous one-liners and horrible dialogue. It's here that Tami Hoag's romance roots become painfully obvious. They're passages of seriously ridiculous descriptions and hilarious internal dialogue; with Megan , a clearly intelligent and strong woman, being reduced to a simpering idiot repeating the same lines about 'retaining control' while the irresistibly sexy Mitch holds her in his strong, manly arms and whispers "seductive" one-liners that would make any regular woman laugh in his face. For example:

(From when Megan, disheveled and tired first meets Mitch as he's dancing in the police station practicing for some charity event):

"Tall and trim, he had Harrison Ford's looks and an athlete's body. The underwear fit him like a second skin, announcing his gender in no uncertain terms. Megan fought to drag her gaze to less provocative details of his anatomy—his sculpted chest, narrow hips, long legs as muscular as a horseman's..."

Done cracking up yet? I was cringing and laughing as I wrote that out, still unable to believe that someone would actually write like that. Harrison Ford! Yes! And this is just in the first ten pages!

The painful sexual tension keeps building up, and it's very strange how Hoag decides to insert little 'sensual' passages between actual events in the plot, which are more often than not rather bloody and a little disturbing. It's as if she just had to make Mitch and Megan fall for each other and have wild, passionate sex even when it really has no rightful place in the plot. Maybe she's required to write the words "thick, pulsing shaft" (no, seriously) in every one of her novels. The biggest problem, really, is that she's obviously going for making your funny parts tingle and keeping up the tense, exciting feel of the book. Unfortunately, she's terrible at writing truly romantic, sensual scenes, and instead of being swept into it you end up laughing and the mood is clumsily broken.

"When he touched her, she felt like a woman, not a cop. It frightened her to let go of that identity, but there was Mitch, whispering, coaxing…trust me…touching the heart of her need…stroking the most feminine part of her…caressing…loving…trust me…"

Sweet holy ellipsis.

As for the rest of the book, it's not too bad. It's not great, but Hoag populates the book with a nice mix of background characters, and she does a decent job of capturing the feeling of despair and fear that falls on the town when the boy is kidnapped. The story's good, the pace is quick and entertaining, but her characters are such clichés that it's easy to get tired of them. Hoag knows how to get your attention, and you keep reading despite the pain. I ended up feeling vaguely embarrassed and ashamed that I had read this, like the aftermath of binging on chocolate chip cookies. They were delicious, but they do make you hurt afterwards..

On top of that, the book ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, and it wasn't until the last few pages that I realized Night Sins is only part one of a two-book series. Yep, there's more of this. And of course, I had to find it and read it, because for all of Hoag's weaknesses, you just can't get into a murder mystery without wanting to find out who did it. So it's on to the sequel.

Stay tuned for the next review, of Guilty as Sin.

Yes, even the title is ridiculous.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Book #8: 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini

I am way behind on my review for this book, so unfortunately my memories of it aren't as clear as I would like them to be. Thankfully, the book made such an impact on me that I have yet to forget how powerful a read it was, how moving and beautiful a story it told.

Khaled Hosseini is perhaps better known for his breakout novel, The Kite Runner. It's the story of two boys living and growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, their friendship torn apart by the fact that each is from a different religious faction. With the Kite Runner, I finally understood the complexity and the magnitude of everything that had, and was still happening in that far-off country I had only heard about in the news. I think that (and this might be true for most Westerners) we have become almost numb to the constant reports of so many dead and so many attacks coming from Afghanistan, so that we almost come to forget that there are human lives being torn apart, friendships and families destroyed in a senseless struggle for power. Hosseini, with his simple yet touching prose, brought it all home in his first novel; though the story was fiction and the book had some flaws, he gave us a penetrating, honest look into Afghanistan, probably the first for many readers.

In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini does the same, but in a much more powerful way. This time, he focuses on the group that is perhaps the most affected by the wars in which they have little or no say at all: the women of Afghanistan. Hosseini, his style much more mature and elegant than in the Kite Runner, tells the story of two very different women: Mariam and Laila. The first part of the book focuses on Mariam, an illegitimate girl raised by a bitter, sad mother. Mariam is visited every now and then by her father, Jalil, a wealthy man whom she adores. She is a happy child until she discovers that her father and his family are ashamed of her, when she isn't allowed into his house after he breaks a promise to take her somewhere. She is heartbroken, and remains a sad and tragic figure as she is later forcefully married to a much older man. Mariam, a poor, uneducated girl, accepts her life as the isolated wife of an abusive, religiously conservative man, because she knows nothing better. Or rather, she believes she deserves nothing better. All she knows is that she must live the life she has been given, and that to fight it would be useless.

Hosseini leaves Mariam for a while to tell us of Laila a young girl, who lives down the street from the reclusive Mariam and her husband. Unlike the older woman, Laila has a loving family and a progressive father who believes women have the right to be educated and to work. Laila falls in love with a young man named Tariq, but just before they can be together, Afghanistan is thrown into a cycle of civil wars and invasions that would sink it into a constantly changing, constantly dangerous world in which death is always just around the corner. I won't spoil the how, but I'll just say that eventually Laila's and Miriam's lives are brought together.

It's here that Hosseini connects their two stories, and the women's relationship, tense at first, is the most honest and touching part of the entire book, and I admit it brought tears to my eyes. Laila finally allows Mariam to see that there is more to the world than suffering and sadness, resignation and numbness. The love that grows between them, like a mother and daughter, is beautifully written by Hosseini, their lives being affected but not much changed by the constant warfare in Afghanistan. As women during the reign of the Taliban, they are not allowed to know or to see anything, but Hosseini constantly connects their lives to what is going on in the larger world. They are in many ways helpless, but they learn to survive by their strength and love alone.

I think this last is why I found this book to be much more real and powerful than The Kite Runner. It's so rare to hear of war from the point of view of women, let alone Afghanistan, and even more rare to see it done so well as Hosseini does. The two women are so carefully drawn that you come to understand them completely, and there is never a moment when they seem unrealistic; they feel real, and their story has the most impact because of it. It's never manipulative or cloying: it's honest.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a story full of sadness and tragedy, but there are moments of true beauty and happiness in the lives of Mariam and Laila, and these are just as heart-wrenching and powerful. I absolutely loved reading this book, even when it had me sobbing into my shirt in the middle of the night.