The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

Title: The Colorado Kid
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Mystery

Rating: 3 / 5 

Goodreads

This was a pick for a book group I’m in. I think it’s unlikely I ever would have picked it up left to my own devices. I’ve only read one Stephen King, 11/22/63, and that one was a middling read. This one, a fraction of the size at less than 200 pages, falls into the “middling” range as well.

The entire book is a single conversation between three people, a conceit I thought worked fairly well but will likely disappoint readers who desire more action. A few people sitting around an office talking about a death–maybe murder, maybe not–from 25 years back? Not particularly thrilling. Two of the characters are old newspapermen–one in his seventies and one in his nineties–and the third is a twenty-two year old summer intern for the paper from the Midwest who finds herself falling in love with coastal Maine.

[This paragraph contains spoilers.] This book will appeal to those who like a slow and subdued yarn, who find satisfaction in unsatisfying endings, are comfortable with a lack of answers, and don’t mind the absence of a plot. After all, the characters themselves say there is “no through-line” to the story they tell. And I did actually enjoy those aspects of the book. But I think I would have rated it higher if there had been more detail about the titular character’s life. I think I would have enjoyed it more if King had tantalized his readers with more possibilities, making it even more frustrating when there really is no solution or story. As it is, my favorite part of the book is probably actually the afterword.

I think this is a good afternoon read, especially if you’re into mysteries or the unexplained–it’s a short and easy read, undemanding and fairly pleasant despite its focus on maybe-murder-maybe-not. It’s a decent story, more about people’s desire to create a narrative out of what facts they can piece together than a narrative in its own right, and that makes it more interesting to me than it would otherwise have been.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

Title: The Past
Author: Tessa Hadley
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4.25 / 5 

Goodreads

I really liked this one. I picked it up at my university library in a fit of end-of-semester emotions; I had just finished grading students’ finals and dropped them back in the office. I was quite elated and skipped on over to the library for a treat. I came away with an armful of books, most of which I was already planning on reading. This book was an impulse though; I picked it up just for the cover–isn’t that a gorgeous cover? And I have to say I’m quite pleased with my gut instinct on this one because I really liked it. It’s a solid 4 stars–“I really liked it.” And I really did!

Here’s what critics of the novel say: It’s boring. The characters are unlikeable. Nothing happens.

I guess we all have our likes and dislikes. After a couple pages, I did briefly wonder if I should set it down. I am so glad I didn’t–by the end of the first chapter, I was hooked. But then, I’m an only child, and this is a book of family drama. Understated, but still…lots of family drama. I was kind of fascinated by it. As for likable characters, I didn’t think these people were particularly unlikable; they’re just your run-of-the-mill people, which to me makes them more interesting than characters who are just “likable.” Heroes are boring. (Except for you, Harry Potter.) How many people are just straight up “likable,” especially when they’re living in a house with their adult siblings for three weeks? There was only one character in this book that I actually disliked, but having that character in the mix made the whole thing more interesting.

Okay, so what’s it about? There are four siblings, now middle-aged adults, who reconvene every year for a three week holiday in their mother’s childhood home in a small country town on the west coast of England. The house is large and everyone has their baggage. That’s basically it. There’s an interlude in the middle that is set in the same place but with the siblings’ mother as a young woman. It kind of reminded me of The Nest, but a bit more serious in tone.

I liked Hadley’s writing a lot. I thought the way she wrote her characters in particular was brilliant. I like character studies, and that’s kind of what this felt like–a study of a family; not too dysfunctional, not too well off. Nothing much “happens,” I suppose–although, in some senses, quite a bit happens, but it boils down to mostly just people with their people stuff. If you’re thinking “why would I read that??” then yeah, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the book! But if you’re thinking, “ah yes, well written characters and people with their people stuff…,” then I suggest giving it a shot. You’ll probably know by the end of the first chapter (25 pages, large font) if it’s your cup of tea. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and I would be quite pleased if every book I read was this good.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Genre: Science fiction

Rating: 3.75ish / 5 

Goodreads

After my bad experience with Heinlein, I wanted to wash the bad taste out of my mouth with some good sci-fi. I have a hard time rating this book, because while at times it was a 2 star reading experience, there is a lot to like about it.

The story is about a ship in a human body–imagine if the USS Enterprise existed simultaneously as a ship but also as human bodies, like for making Captain Picard’s bed or providing security. And then one of those bodies becomes separated from itself, the ship, and goes on its own, self-directed mission, pretending to be human. That’s basically this book.

One feature of this book has been heavily commented on, and which I loved, is its approach to gender. Or, well, maybe not its approach to gender–the book doesn’t have much of one, honestly, but the author’s choice of using the pronoun “she” to refer to all characters regardless of their gender does do some interesting things. You can read more about those things here, paying especial attention to the comments. I agree with commenters on that piece who say that Leckie wasn’t intending that the main culture in this book, the Radch, is completely free of gender, only that the language doesn’t name it. I didn’t see Leckie trying to score a point for nonbinary gender systems here; rather, the use of “she” for all people has important implications for how people in this society read and interact with her book and characters. The default pronoun for all people has been “he” for so long, and people who typically hold the positions of highly placed commanders, soldiers, pilots, ship captains, supreme lords of the universe, etc., in our society tend to also be people who use the pronoun “he.” So, in this instance, in a book full of lieutenants, inspectors, and lords of the universe, using “she” for everyone not only gives us some insight into the way an AI sees things or Radch society, it also challenges our own assumptions of gender and who is worthy of holding those positions–worthiness of holding positions being a main theme in the plot of the book as well. There’s also the fact that when presented with a gender neutral pronoun, both adults and children, men and women, more often assume the person is male or masculine; sometimes the effect is subtle, sometimes it is large–for instance, Switzer (1990) found that when presented with a story about “the student” with no gender pronoun given, over 63% of respondents described a male; when “they” was used, “only” 44% of people conjured a male–but then, only 27% conjured a female. Do we really believe that by using “they” or some other gender-neutral pronoun to refer to lords, commanders, captains, etc., that most people wouldn’t have just imagined a man? I think the use of the “she” generic pronoun in this book challenges our notions of gender more effectively than a “true” neutral pronoun would have done in the same book and story.

My main complaint of the book is that Leckie, I think, makes some parts of the plot unnecessarily confusing and asks the reader to do heavy lifting where I think it would be much better served by being direct or explaining what’s going on more clearly. I enjoy feeling tension, where I am unsure about a certain character’s motives or who they might be. Instead of creating intrigue, this book caused confusion for me. There were times I was struggling to figure out what even was supposed to be going on, which doesn’t make for a super pleasant reading experience. I knew going in that it was a series and that I don’t usually like series. I decided to read it anyway, so I don’t know how disappointed I’m allowed to be that the ending really isn’t an ending. But yeah, I am. It just doesn’t feel over, you know?

This book’s strength is in the concepts and themes it explores–the computer-cum-human protagonist, the Radch, the question of free will versus fate and programming, ends and means, and our own current conception of gender. Its weakness is the plot, which was actually quite simple but was told in a somewhat convoluted way that robbed me of some of the enjoyment of watching it unfold. I am glad I read it, though. The upsides were worth the downsides, enough that I am considering continuing the series. It’s both interesting and a space opera; if that sounds like your thing, you might find it rewarding as well.

References
Switzer, J.Y. (1990). The impact of generic word choices: An empirical investigation of age- and sex-related differences. Sex Roles, 22(1-2), 69-82.

From the Archives Friday: Animal Farm

I’m trying out a new feature. I’ve noticed a lot of times when I go to “compare books” with a person on Goodreads, I’ll be scrolling down the list of books with their respective ratings and think to myself, “Did I really give five stars to that??” or “Wouldn’t give that one four stars today.” Still, I remain reluctant to re-rate them. So, I’ve decided to bring them back out, go over what I remember about the books, how I felt about them at the time, and how I feel about them now to see if I can reassess their rating.

 

 

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
Genre: Fiction / dystopia

Goodreads

Original rating: 4 / 5

I read this book when I was 16, in the summer before my junior year AP English class. I put it off until like two days before school started because I dislike being made to do things on my breaks, even if I like those things.

What I remember about the book: I remember there’s a pig named Napoleon and he’s kind of bossy. It’s short. There’s some mind tricks or something and then the pigs are acting all high and mighty and controlling but pretending they’re all still equal. The whole thing is an allegory, like, for Russians or communism or something.

How I felt about it at the time: I honestly don’t remember. That was 13 years ago. This is the first book I ever rated on Goodreads, and at the time I rated it, it had been about 4 years since I read it. My feelings were probably a mix of resentment at having to read it, relief that it was only 140 pages, and enjoyment of actually reading it (I do love reading). I do seem to remember it being tedious in parts, though.

How I feel about it now: Almost nothing. I don’t remember the discussion in class. When I look at it, I basically just think the buzzwords about it: classic – political allegory – clever. I can’t say if my rating is reflective more of my own reading experience or if it’s influenced by those ideas.

Verdict: I think I’m going to have to re-read this one. If someone asked me if I liked Animal Farm today, I would likely say, “Yeah, I liked it,” which corresponds to 3 stars on the Goodreads rating system. I very much doubt I would say, “I really liked it,” because my feelings just don’t have enough oomph one way or the other on this book. There’s also the fact that I used to over-inflate my ratings–every book would start with 5 stars in my mind and then have them taken away for things. It’s pretty much the opposite of the way I rate now, where every star has to be earned. (Also, stars are definitely not the best way to review a book, but I do love the simplicity of their shorthand, so I try to have them make sense.) Based on these factors, I think I’m going to update my rating to 3 out of 5, pending a reread. I am mildly enthusiastic about the reread, which is probably a good sign.

Original rating: 4 / 5
Updated rating: 3 / 5