Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Maxwell

Elizabeth Maxwell, the author, uses two separate devices to tell her story. The first, which is only used to get the story started although it becomes the plot, is a writer telling a story, switching back to her life, story.
The second one, which works but I doubt will ever work for any of Maxwell’s readers a second time, is the use of craft to tell a story.
That is to say, using information about the craft the narrator is engaged in to further propel the story. Think USA’s “Burn Notice.” In that instance, a spy of sorts engages the viewer with it, with its background, with its creation and destruction, as a means to further his own narrative. Maxwell does the same, but for something she engages in: the writing of the romance novel.
This isn’t a knock on Happily Ever After (which is a terribly generic title.) It works in the context of the book. It’s fully enjoyable. The problem arises with, it’s a one-use-only kind of device, and one that used in this more narrowed instance, ruins all future uses by any other authors for readers.
That is to say, I don’t ever want to read another book that uses a telling of the craft of romance writing to propel a novel because, how many novels worth of craft are there to write about? There is a certain plateau, beyond which, everything is just jargon.
Others have made comparisons to the film “Stranger Than Fiction.” Certainly, the comparison is apt. They’re the same kind of stories, the same sub-genre of sorts. Really, that’s where the comparison should end.

Exceeded expectations
I assumed when I started the book, but after I had read the reviews, I would hate it. I don’t trust the overly positive, but short, reviews and the negatives one seemed to parrot what I’ve seen as warning signs for other books.

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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Despite all the praise “Half a King” has been receiving, I found it to be sorely wanting.

My tendency is to blame it on being a young adult novel, something I only realized after I finished the book. That’s not fair to the genre.

“Half a King” is really half a novel.

It’s a mediocre start to what promises to be a series of some king, although what that will entail is unknown.

When it comes to the fantasy part of “Half a King”, there’s almost nothing at all. There’s writing of Elfen structures and some religious talk of the time between now and then, when the gods were shattered. There’re also some plotlines of the coming of a monotheistic movement.

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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

A book as well played as the ballet depicted in it, Astonish Me hits every single mark, just as its master-level ballet dancers do in their performances.

Maggie Shipstead’s second novel, Astonish me, leaves few questions unanswered in a humane and relatable tale set over two generations.

The novel’s strength is not just its writing, which is very, very good. The strength, the brilliance, comes from the use of medium in which the tale is set, paced with the elements of the plot.

In other words, telling the story of the ballet is telling the story of the characters.

More viscerally, Shipstead matches the staccato of the ballet, of the action, with her writing and plot.

“When rehearsals start, she sees quickly that the promise will be less easily kept than she thought. Phoenix, a tall, elegant, low-jawed black woman who always dresses in pristine white layers, had an idea for a dance that is slinky, jazzy, loose, juice. Arslan struggles. He has difficulty unlocking his hips to allow for the Latin figure-eight movement Phoenix wants; he has difficulty letting his body curve forward, like a sail filling with wind, until he falls off balance and must catch himself; he has difficulty being light and sexy, not intense and passionate. She asks him to turn one leg while the other and his torso are extended parallel to the floor, counterbalancing each other. Elaine, who has more training in contemporary fane, finds herself in the unexpected position of offering reassurance and advice.”

The book is broken up to chapters, specific scenes in time, a month and a year. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters. Most of the book is in present tense, something I did not realize until I was half-way through the book.

Ultimately, I was incredibly saddened to be leaving the world Shipstead created and she glued me with plot twists to the end.

The only real plot twists come at the end as the story doesn’t so much as plod, it is far too interesting and exciting for that. No, it unfurls. Each chapter, each scene, leads up to the next, is interesting in its own right. Each character’s trajectory is fascinating in its own right.

Don’t believe the more negative reviews. This is one book to keep on the shelf.

This book was received, free of charge, through the Goodreads Firstreads program.

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Dr. Vigilante by Alberto Hazan

The concept is ripe for a novel: doctor uses his access to patients, and trends, in the emergency room to carry out a war on the male criminal elements in the big apple.

The inherent tension in the idea would, seemingly, be enough fodder for a brilliant story. After all, it’s about a doctor who hurts people, and then proceeds to treat the people he’s intentionally harmed. A doctor violating his oath.
Dr. Vigilante does not live up to the lofty concept. It lives up to the pretension of a rich, hunky doctor living in New York City, who is written as a toned-down version of Batman.
The pretension, along with the terrible stereotypes and blatant sexism built into the plot, into the characters, even into the setting, helps drive this book down, down, down.

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Death’s Acre by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

“Death’s Acre” is not what it claims to be: “Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales.”

It’s Bill Bass’s bloated memoir, brimming with useless information, bogging down readers and serving no purpose.

It’s also Bill Bass’s chance to stand up and accuse men and women, not convicted in a court of law, of being murderers. More on that later.

Bass writes about all sorts of things, including a few of his cases and cases of his colleagues. He writes a little about the “body farm” and its genesis, but, not that much.

He complains about journalists, the scoundrels, and then bemoans when newspapers (written by journalists) didn’t cover a murder, disappearance or found body he deemed newsworthy. A little bit of cake-and-eat-it-too going on.

As much as Bass might bemoan journalists, he could have done with a journalistic editor. He jumps around, across, over, under and through time without much, if any, concrete groundings, concrete dates, concrete years to orient the reader. There is no timeline and the memoir is not ordered chronologically.

Result: Confusing and bloated. Too much useless fluff opinion. Bass tries to be a philosopher, to make great, profound points at the end of his chapters. Really, life is short and brutish and no amount of sugared words will mask that fact.

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The Night Searchers by Marcia Muller

I don’t normally subscribe to the Marxist camp of literary theory, but this mystery novel grated on my sensibilities until finally, after I finished it, the grating turned into a salient realization:
The Night Searchers is a screed, beckoning the top 10 percent to piss on the bottom 10 percent. The wealthy to lord their wealth and privilege over the poor. Not the super-wealthy, just the normal-wealthy.
I realize this is a vulgar thing to write, but it is an unfortunately true approximation of the book, its themes, its characters, its setting, etc.
We have Mrs. Sharon McCone, private detective, living in San Francisco and married to a man who runs some sort of similar agency.
Both are filthy, stinking rich. Multiple houses in multiple locations. Fancy sports cars. One house in San Francisco, with its bloated rents pushed higher by the likes of McCone. Two other houses, sitting unused, unneeded by them. They have the privilege to waste. (The reader, I suppose, is supposed to laude these marks of the main character’s wealth.)

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The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Another reviewer is entirely baffled as how this book has such incredible reviews. I fall into this reviewer’s camp.

The light in the ruins only has a single redeeming quality: the female, post-war detective attempting to solve the series of murders plaguing an aristocratic Tuscan family.

The female detective is great, and she holds great potential. This is not a vehicle for her. Nor is The Light in the Ruins a vehicle for anything.

There’s some sporadic narration by the killer, which is entirely clichéd, boring and pointless. There’s the primal serial killing done in the name of revenge. There’re Nazis, and the people allied with them and there’s the resistance and some ruins and a weak love story.

Really, there’s nothing worth writing about and there’s nothing worth reading about.

Really, the writing is weak and the emotions are boring and the plot moves so slowly as to be worthless.

This book was received, free of charge, from the Goodreads First Reads program.

On Goodreads