Sunday, November 30, 2008

Title Seven: The Pagan Stone by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts' name is virtually synonymous with the romance novel. She is also one of the most prolific mass market writers today; between the Nora Roberts standalone novels, trilogies, novellas, and the futuristic In Death series - written under the pseudonym J.D. Robb - she churns out three or four new books a year. Unlike James Patterson, she does it alone. Her writing remains sharp, funny, and spicy, which is why she has such a rabid fan base. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, her plotlines seem to be wearing thin.

The Pagan Stone is the final installment in the Sign of Seven trilogy. Over 300 years ago, a "guardian" named Giles Dent battled a demon in the form of a man named Lazarus Twisse at a place that has come to be called the Pagan Stone by the locals of Hawkins Hollow, Maryland. At midnight on July 7, 1987, three best friends celebrated their tenth birthday by camping out at the Pagan Stone and performing a childish ritual to become "blood brothers." In doing so, Cal Hawkins, Fox O'Dell, and Gage Turner unleashed Twisse, who comes back for one week every seven years to infect and wreak havoc and terror on the town. The townspeople kill, rape, steal, loot, off themselves and create general mayhem. After the "Seven," as the men have come to call it, a sort of amnesia sets in and no one remembers quite what has happened except for this little band who have charged themselves with protecting the town. I was hooked by the premise of the story from the first book, Blood Brothers, and it kept my attention through act two, The Hollow.

Since this novel is the third and final piece of the story, most of the plot is established. Three women have come to join the men in their little quest, and in predictable fashion, Cal has already paired off with the lovely Quinn Black and Fox is hooked up with sassy Layla Darnell. You already know that Gage is going to end up with the exotic Cybil Kinski, because there's a formula to these things. Personally, I don't read the books for the romance and sex, because predictability bores me. I read them for the characters, and this is Gage's book. He's a poker-playing, ladies'-man badass who grew up the son of the town drunk and lit out as soon as he could, but he comes back every Seven out of love and loyalty for Cal and Fox. The three men are descendents of Dent; their ancestors are Dent's triplet sons by Ann Hawkins, daughter of the town's founder. Gage's mother died when he was a kid and with a father who beat him just for the hell of it, Cal and Fox are the closest thing Gage has to family. That's about all of the character development that we get from Gage. According to legends and lore, dreams and visions, our merry sextet has to figure out how to end Twisse for good this time or he will come back to full power (or something like that). Obviously they do just that, because bored women don't want unhappy endings where the heroes die and the bad guy wins. I actually wanted something like that to happen; I would have been cool with Gage having to give his life for the sake of the greater good, if only to break up the monotony.

To be honest, I was looking forward to getting answers and resolution from this book, but all it really did was confuse me. It's almost like Roberts was humming along, knocked out the first two books, and then ran out of steam on this one so she just kind of said, "Okay, Gage can see the future, so he believes that he has to die for them to win, and he's gonna bang Cybil, and fall in love with her even though he doesn't want to, and make up with his father, and then there will be some fire and somebody will almost die and they'll all live happily ever after. And eat cake."

I think that my biggest issue with the trilogy in particular and Roberts' books as a whole is the fact that they always have to have that fairytale marriage/babies/ride off into the sunset ending. Why can't I have a romance novel where the characters don't fall madly in love after a few weeks and plan weddings a mere four months after they meet? Give me a couple in love who are content to just shack up for a while and see where life takes them. (Interestingly, Fox's parents are a couple of hippies who never bothered to tie the knot.) Given the fact that Gage and Cybil are both free spirited roamers, is it really necessary that they decide to head for Vegas and a Little White Chapel? Can't they just say, "Hey, we're in love, we're going to have a baby, and we're just going to travel around like a little nomad family because that's the way we're wired." I guess I'm just looking for a happy ending that doesn't necessarily end with a white dress, birdseed, and a baby coach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Title Six: The Suspect by John Lescroart

Full disclosure: I currently owe the Free Library of Philadelphia over $100 in fines, and am too broke to pay them. Hence, I need to find my reading materials around the house. Not that there is a dearth of books here; quite the opposite. It's just that I've read nearly everything on the shelves, in the cupboards, and under the beds so in order to review fresh material I've been picking up books that I've avoided for one reason or the other.

In the case of John Lescroarts's The Suspect, I had a very good reason for that avoidance. This legal "thriller" is the literary equivalent of an Ambien - it'll put you to sleep fast but you come to four hours later wondering what the hell the point was. In a nutshell: hotshot doctor/innovator Caryn Dryden is found dead in her hot tub two days after telling her spineless husband, outdoor writer Stuart Gorman, that she wants a divorce. As anyone who has seen ten minutes of any Law & Order episode knows, the spouse is always the first suspect. Even though Stuart was out of town at the time of Caryn's death, it's not enough to establish an alibi. Enter a detective with an attitude, a defense lawyer who's been out of the game for a long while, a lawmaker with ties to the deceased, suspect, and said lawyer, a wiseacre PI and some other stock characters, and what you've got on your hands is one hot mess.

I don't read a lot of legal fiction, because in my opinion a lot of it sucks. I'm the reader who doesn't want to be able to guess whodunnit. I want a plot twist at the end that will rock my socks off my feet (or my flip flops, if it's summer). Not only did I figure out the murderer one-third of the way through, but I couldn't believe no one else guessed. The entire case against Stuart is so circumstantial that I laughed at it. The author had one flash of inspiration - to give Stuart a custom license plate reading GHOTI ("The 'gh' sound from laugh, the 'o' from women, the 'ti' from action. So ghoti, pronounced 'correctly,' spelled fish.") - and beats it to death the entire book. In lieu of any other originality, Lescroart just tosses standard plot devices like mistaken identity, big-dollar life insurance policies, shady business dealings and infidelity into a pot, boils it to mush, and serves it up on a plate with garnish. If it were possible to get indigestion from a book, I'd be reaching for a bottle of Mylanta right about now.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Title Five: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

When I first noticed this book floating around my house, about a year and a half ago, I groaned inwardly that someone had paid money for some new-agey crap about a woman on a spiritual journey and blahdeblah. I finally gave in and read for two reasons: everyone I know kept raving about it and I was bored.

I started the book while hungover, and took this as a bad omen that I was about to subject myself to 108 chapters of woo-woo nonsense. I finished it with a feeling of admiration and introspection. Sure, I can't spend a year living in three countries (Italy, India and Indonesia) in a quest to "find myself," but the author treats the experience with an open, frank and funny tone as she takes the reader through innumberable plates of pasta, days spent in an Ashram, and the creation of a unique circle of friends in Bali.

Gilbert begins at the beginning, which I find refreshing, since so many of these types of books begin in media res and leave me with an initial sense of confusion. One night, while lying sobbing on the bathroom floor with her husband sleeping in the other room, the author finds herself mired in a pit of despair because she hates her marriage and her perfect life as a respected and published travel writer living in a perfect suburb of New York City in a perfect American Dream-style home. She knows just one thing - she wants out of her marriage and out of her life. It's not a suicide type "Oh God, I wish I could just drink a bleach cocktail and check out for good;" it's more of a "This is not my life and I need to figure out what it is supposed to be." The divorce is ugly, messy, and brutal, while her subsequent romance with a younger man meant to be a rebound develops into a co-dependent struggle as she finds herself disappearing into him. Gilbert decides to grab onto her life with both hands, no matter how much it hurts, and get away from all of it until she figures out who she is. I found this to be very touching because, as Americans, we tend to define ourselves by our careers and the people with whom we surround ourselves, by the movies we like and the takeout places we frequent and the sports teams we cheer on with almost manic intensity (I'm a married lawyer Sox fan who likes horror and sci-fi, with an affinity for Hunan cuisine and deep-dish pizza). But who are you? Who am I? In my opinion, this accounts for not only the sterotypical "midlife crisis" but also the recent emergence of what the pop psychologists have named the "quarterlife crisis." No one seems to be comfortable in their own skins. Therefore, I have a certain admiration for the few among us who actually put in the effort to become comfortable and banish the boogeymen who live under the bed.

Gilbert's first stop is Italy, where she stays for four months learning the language, sampling (or rather inhaling) the food, traveling to the notable and not-so-notable Italian cities and towns. With each passing day, she becomes less of a tourist and more of a resident, staying in a rented apartment, frequenting the local merchants, and cultivating a charming little circle of chums who share in her journey and encourage her. At the end of her sojourn, she sets off for India with a newfound sense of pride in herself as she realizes that she is beginning to become her own person, stepping out of the shadow in which she spent so many years. (Yeah, I just got a *little* self-helpy/new-ageish on you.)

Next up is India, where Gilbert throws herself into furthering her basic Yogic training. I have to admit that this section bored me a bit because I've never really seen the point of meditation and chanting in Sanskrit and the thought of sitting in a cross-legged position for hours on end kind of makes my brain fall asleep. However, Gilbert embraces the lifestyle, which includes scrubbing floors and working as the Ashram cruise director, of sorts, while continuing with her meditation and chanting and searching for God. She describes a few moments of succeeding in finding herself at one with the universe and admits to making out with a tree (I know how that sounds; but it's something I might do while completely drunk so I can't really judge), and if she believes it, then it must be truth for her. Who am I to say? She leaves the Ashram with equal parts hope, insight, and sadness, and heads for Bali to study with a famous healer and further her spiritual education.

I would have to admit that this phase of Gilbert's journey is the most interesting to me in the entire book, but it also took the most time for me to get through because there is far more action than in the previous two. Besides developing a friendship with the medicine man, she finds a close friend in a healer named Wayan, Wayan's children, and finds a small group of expats like herself, one of whom (*spoiler*) she takes as a lover - how Carrie Bradshaw of her - even though she swore herself to a vow of celibacy for the year. I don't want to give away too much of this last leg of Gilbert's journey, but I feel that I should point out that it is in Indonesia that she truly discovers the kind of woman, and person, that she truly is, and I believe that it is largely a result of her learning to trust both her heart and the people around her that gives her the freedom to do so.

When I really thought about it, I was actually a little jealous because I wish I could devote just a small amount of time in my life traveling and discovering who I really am. I joke with friends and family about what I want to be "when I grow up," but the truth of the matter is that I'm looking down the barrel of 30 and I'm not sure who or what I am now. I'm not getting all emo about it since I can figure it out right here at home, if I truly commit to it, but who wouldn't like to visit interesting and exotic places while discovering just who we truly are inside? (Okay, maybe a little emo.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Title Four: Never Shower In A Thunderstorm (Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In) by Anahad O'Connor

Anahad O'Connor is a columnist for the New York Times, where he takes questions from readers in his "Really?" column on topics ranging from the veracity of old wives' tales to whether or not identical twins have identical fingerprints and older siblings are smarter. He has gathered over a hundred of these questions and gathered them into this funny, insightful and informative book giving you answers as to whether or not all that stuff your mother told you really is true or not.

O'Connor debunks such myths as the idea that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis and that you have to wait 45 minutes after a meal to go swimming, and makes the case that chicken soup is, in fact, good for a cold; you also can develop alopecia from wearing hats and tight ponytails. The book runs the gamut from topics such as sex, heredity, fitness, health, sleep, technology, and nature and is chock full of great questions:

"Will having sex before sports hinder your performance?"

"Does celery really have negative calories?"

"Does stepping on something rusty give you tetanus?"

"Can cold weather really give you a cold?"

And of course, one of the most ubiquitous questions of all:

"Do you risk electrocution if you shower during a thunderstorm?"

The answer to that one, incidentally, is yes. Not only does O'Connor describe the how (lightning that hits a building can travel through the plumbing, along metal pipes, and directly into a metal tap or faucet; additionally, tap water makes an excellent conductor because of impurities and minerals) but he also backs it up with expert confirmation from a former meterologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The fun of this book is that it has a great balance of science and banter, facts and jokes. O'Connor cites dozens of studies as he works his way through a mountain of questions but keeps a light-hearted tone. He also distills the information into neat bites so that it is easy to both understand the explanations and reasoning, and put the book down for days or weeks at a time and pick it up again when you're looking for something breezy to pass the time, but still want to feed your head. For a trivia savant like me, this is a fantastic addition to my (many) bookshelves.

Oh, and by the way - identical twins do NOT have identical fingerprints, so you don't need to Google that from your mobile.