Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moving to New Location!

Hi Everyone! All book-related content and posts have been moved to my new blog, The Evening Reader. If you have linked to this blog or saved it in a feed, please update the location to the following:

eveningreader.wordpress.com

I'll be posting regularly there starting Sunday, March 1.

Sweet Diva will remain online as a perfume blog. All other links and info will be moved to the new blog over the following week.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Reader’s Journal: Isabella Moon

Being somewhat new to the thriller genre, I want to say first that I realize I might not be this author’s ideal reader. Authors, of course, don’t really get to choose who their readers are, unless they publish and distribute their books themselves. Even though I was hopeful--I really wanted to like this book--I find myself disappointed. I found Isabella Moon through Laura Benedict’s blog, and she seems so nice, like someone you’d want to have in your circle of friends. All the time I was reading this and thinking about composing my thoughts, I wondered: if one of my friends wrote a book (actually, some of my friends are writing books) that I read and didn’t exactly like, would I tell him or her the truth? Well, yes.

Isabella Moon tells the story of a woman visited by the apparition of a young girl who has been missing for two years. Isabella Moon appears in Kate Russell’s dreams to tell her where she’s buried, information Kate takes to the town’s sheriff, an incident which kicks off a series of murders that reveal secrets hidden beneath the town’s quaint, friendly veneer. We meet a lot of characters and witness a lot of twists and turns.

I suppose that’s my main problem with the book: it never focused on any one thing long enough for me to feel invested. It seems at the beginning like this will be Kate’s story, that she has some connection with the girl, either real or psychic. Most of the first half of the book does focus on her, unfortunately in flashback. I say unfortunately because these flashbacks, which tell the backstory of Kate’s relationship with her abusive husband Miles, detract from the present story. They’re too long, and instead of making us understand her better, they serve to make her seem like a stock character, and sort of an aimless, empty-headed one at that. We never get a real sense of what keeps her with Miles--the money? Her desire for stability? She doesn’t come across as insecure so much as apathetic, which makes her come across as flat. Of course, the abuse is terrible, but beyond not wanting to see her suffer, she’s hard to care about.

Another thing that bothers me about the flashbacks--they’re in italics. To authors and editors everywhere: please learn to write (or edit) solid transitions between the past and present, and assume your readers are intelligent enough to follow along with you. Plenty of writers have done this quite successfully. Also, if you must use italics to show us when you’re going into the past or into the head of one character, don’t suddenly start using the same technique for other characters. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Benedict gives Miles a flashback chapter, and then she goes on and gives other characters flashback chapters. I was left wondering, why the transition from Kate?

And speaking of that, the whole book transitions from Kate, but it’s unclear why, except for the fact that Benedict has placed all these other characters in the story, and she has to somehow wrap up everything that’s happening with them. Even though it does come back to Kate in the final chapter, we never get a sense of why Isabella Moon chose her to communicate with in the first place. In fact, Isabella Moon seems to be nothing more than a plot device (and a title). She appears only to a few characters, but why? And another character who dies also appears several times, but that’s never explored either. I’m not sure if Benedict had ideas about making this a paranormal thriller and then she got caught up elsewhere, or what.

The book also focuses on the relationship between Kate’s best friend Francie and her secret lover, Paxton Birkenshaw. Francie is black, from a decent family, and Paxton is white, from one of the town’s best families. Francie and Paxton themselves are dull characters (usual small Southern town racial tension, and they both like coke--not the drink), but their mothers are both interesting characters, and I wanted more of them and less of their children. Delving more into the town’s past--and less into Kate’s--would have made for a more interesting book. And one nitpicky thing: at one point, Kate, who’s from South Carolina, seems puzzled that the little Kentucky hamlet in which she lives has an area still called “Darktown” by some of the town elders. Nobody who lives or grew up in the South would bat an eye at that or need to have it explained. The vestiges of racism still exist all over the South. (I live in Georgia, by the way.) To say she looked offended, yes--but puzzled? Hardly.

I’m finding it hard to write a focused review about such an unfocused book, especially without either giving something away or having to go into detail about the various plotlines, which would make this post way too long.

The writing itself is okay. Looking for passages to quote, I tended to notice things that bothered my internal English teacher: lots of “wryly” and “idly,” lots of unnecessary intricate description, wordiness. The one sentence that bothered me more than any other in the book (seriously, I kept thinking about it): “His skin wore a healthy-looking tan and there were faint, whitish lines at this temples where his sunglasses had been.” Skin does not “wear” a tan. Skin is tanned. It’s a process that occurs that changes the skin--not something that one puts on and takes off. Grr. I know I sound like a picky bitch, but I hate when writing detracts from the story, when I feel like I want to get out a pencil and start marking things up. (I have a friend whose mother actually does this, by the way.) I know many people don't notice this sort of thing. I've been in a book club for five years, and not once have we discussed the language in a story. (I tried, and I gave up.)

Honestly, I don’t mean to pick on Laura Benedict too much. After all, this is her first novel, and as I said in my post about Goldengrove, writing is difficult, and I think writing a mystery is doubly so. The author must keep the reader guessing--and Benedict did this pretty successfully--and that’s not easy. This book had great potential, and I still would like to read her latest book, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts (although if she reads this, she may write and ask me not to, or at least to keep my mouth shut). I feel here like she must have had a book with so much going on, she and her editor ended up doing the best they could. Then again, as I said at the beginning, I’m not the target audience, not a person who usually reads thrillers, so the fault could be mine. I may be too blind to the conventions, or simply not understand what the audience wants.

*image from powells.com

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

9 for '09 Challenge: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

My first pick for the 9 for ‘09 challenge was in the category Long, which had to be a book longer than the books one usually reads, and for that I chose Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I remember very well reading the review of this in the New York Times and thinking it sounded intriguing--although not for me. My mother-in-law was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series, so when I saw the headline “Hogwarts for Grown-Ups,” I scribbled down the title and resolved to give this to her as a Christmas present, which I did. And I never heard a word about it until she handed it back to me two years later, in a shopping bag full of books she thought I might want to read. Well.

Now, I myself have no basis for comparison, because--brace yourself--I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter books. Yes. It’s true. About eleven people in the Western world have not read the Harry Potter books, and I am one of them. I resisted them at first because they were too popular (Have I talked about that yet--about how I’ll avoid something just because it’s popular?), and now I resist them because my TBR list is already too long and the commitment seems too daunting. And because they’re still popular, and I am stubborn. I’ve seen the movies, but movies aren’t books, so I’m not going to spend any time comparing the two.

Where was I? Oh, the book!

Giving a summary of this tome seems next to impossible, but I’ll try:

The first part of the book is dedicated to the introduction of Mr. Norrell. Some members of a Yorkshire society of theoretical magicians learn of a great library of rare magical books, all kept by Mr. Norrell. The theoretical magicians would like access to the library, but Mr. Norrell is reluctant. He makes a bet with them: if he can perform an act of practical magic--practical magic had disappeared from England hundreds of years before--then they will retire from their studies and cease to call themselves magicians. Mr. Norrell is successful, and all of the magicians save one are forced to retire. Upon Mr. Norrell's success, he determines he should go to London, and we learn that Mr. Norrell hopes to use magic to curry favor with the government, and also to help them end the war against France.

Upon arriving in London, although Mr. Norrell is welcomed by society (although they find him rather dull and are disappointed that he refuses to perform any tricks), he finds that the government wants no part of what he has to offer--until, that is, he is able to resurrect the fiancee of a powerful man, Sir Walter Pole. The problem: upon resurrecting the future Lady Pole, he calls forth an evil faerie, the man with the thistle down hair, and is forced to make a bargain with him for Lady Pole’s life. Mr. Norrell offers the faerie half of the next seventy-five years of Lady Pole’s life (assuming that Sir Pole will have passed by then, as he’s quite a bit older than Lady Pole). The faerie agrees, but what Mr. Norrell does not know is that the faerie places her under an enchantment to take her nights (as his half), leaving her like the walking dead during the day.

In the meantime, Mr. Norrell has great success helping the British defeat the French, and all of England celebrates him as a hero. Mr. Norrell, however, finds himself with a real conundrum on his hands, because with every successful magic act he performs, the more curious people become about magic itself, including the practice of magic. Nothing frightens Mr. Norrell more than the idea of other people besides himself--with one exception--practicing magic, because he believes people are incapable of controlling the outcome.

The exception, of course, is Jonathan Strange, who, on his way to propose marriage to his beloved, is stopped along his journey by a man named Vinculus (a shadowy street magician cast out of London by Mr. Norrell) who prophesies that Strange will be one of two great magicians in England:

“Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
“The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”
Vinculus also gives Strange two spells, and that very evening Strange performs one of them, “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently,” which conjures for him an image of Mr. Norrell:
Well, Henry, you can cease frowning at me. If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.
The second part of the book deals with Strange and his wife, Arabella, moving to London so that Strange can study with Mr. Norrell. Strange’s comment about having conjured a banker sets up the difference between these two, because Strange is more charismatic, more curious and eager to perform spells than simply to study them, as Mr. Norrell does. But this section also sets up the relationship, because Mr. Norrell is eager to have someone with whom he can discuss and share magic. Even without all the fundamental texts--Mr. Norrell keeps the choicest selections of his library at his Yorkshire estate, and never lets Strange see it voluntarily--Strange proves to be a better, more adventurous magician, as we learn as he travels with the British army as they work to defeat Napoleon. He becomes more and more independent of Mr. Norrell, and eventually, he decides to part, for they disagree over one fundamental aspect of English magic and its practice, and that is the summoning of the last King of the North (the "human" King of England ruled the South, or the area around London), a Faerie king named John Uskglass, who was said to have control of all the realms of the world, of Faerie, and even of Hell. Strange believes that they can uncover the spells and the origins of magic by this summons, and Mr. Norrell believes it to be too dangerous, which is the crux of the entire book.

The third part of the book is called “John Uskglass,” and it deals primarily with Strange working to call forth John Uskglass as a means to release Arabella from the same faerie enchantment that grips Lady Pole. I’m oversimplifying this part because it contains all the answers, and only as events unfold does it become clear who is performing what magic and why. Of course I cannot give away the ending, but nothing is revealed until the very last few pages, and Clarke does a terrific job of keeping up the pace, of keeping the reader guessing. Many other characters play a part--a large part, even, but they are too numerous to list here, their stories too involved to tell. Clarke also provides generous footnotes to educate us about the “history” of English magic, and these are both necessary and as interesting as the story they support.

This is a terrifically enjoyable book, and I had a great time reading it. The language is wonderful, and the detail is stunning. Some reviewers seemed to think all the detail detracted from the action (Janet Maslin described it as “[both] action packed and unhurried”), and here I have to disagree. I think the “get to the action already” attitude is a modern one. While I assume that Ms. Maslin would make allowances for “old” books, her annoyance stems mainly from the fact that this is a modern author, but she’s not doing a modern author’s “thing.” In other words, she hasn’t written something literary that could be easily adapted into a screenplay, without having to cut too much of the story. I think it would be next to impossible to make this into a film (although apparently they are trying, and perhaps I‘ll stand corrected), but I also think it would be completely unnecessary to do so: something about the way Clarke tells the story makes it completely visible to the mind’s eye. Her descriptions of places and people are so straightforward that they both reveal the scene and allow the mind to dress it up a bit, as it likes.

Also (and here’s where I geek out completely), I loved the tension between Norrell and Strange, because it reminded me of Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed that writing should not be taught, that people could only do more harm than good for themselves by practicing it, that it could lead them morally astray. Aristotle believed writing was a tool, that poetics (drama) and rhetoric were necessary for man to understand and live life. I’ve no idea if Clarke intended this parallel, but it stuck with me throughout the book.

Finally, even though the book deals with magic and some sections are rather dark, only one part really scared the pants off me. It was the very last sentence on the next to the last page: “This is her first novel.” Terrifying. I can’t wait to see what she does with the next one!

Read an interview with Susanna Clarke here.

*book image from powells.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ten Random Tunes 02.24.09

Still working out player issues. If anyone has suggestions, please leave a comment or contact me at the email address listed in the sidebar.

“Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix. Experience Hendrix - The Best of Jimi Hendrix. This is a track I actually own already (on Are You Experienced?), but I bought it as part of a playlist created by Patti Smith. Other people’s playlists are fascinating to me because I like, well, to hear through other people’s ears, to hear how they connect the songs, and what the elements are. It gives me an aural “vision” of the person’s world and outlook.

“Not Even Jail,” Interpol. Antics. My favorite song on this album. I love this album. I don’t care about any of the criticism I’ve heard about how they’re trying to be Joy Division or blah blah. I like Joy Division, too, but I can only take so much, whereas I can listen to this over and over again.

“Farewell to Earnest” (From Merchant Ivory’s Film “The Householder"), Jyotirindra Moitra & Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. The Darjeeling Limited Soundtrack. Has anyone ever seen The Householder? They have it at Netflix. It was released in 1963, apparently. I feel dumb, because to me, Merchant Ivory films entered my consciousness with Passage to India. I had no idea.

“Where Do You Go to (My Lovely),” Peter Sarsdedt. The Darjeeling Limited Soundtrack. This is one of my very favorite movies, and one of the ways I knew was this song, which plays during "The Hotel Chevalier," the “prequel” to The Darjeeling Limited. I love the literary feel of this movie, the three brothers, and all the colors of India.

“Vampira,” Misfits. Walk among Us. “Come a little bit closer…” This album gives me so much energy, I like to listen to it when I run on the treadmill. I hate running, but this makes it go by faster.

“Walk You Home,” Super Furry Animals. Love Kraft. I have no idea where I got this song. Probably off another playlist years ago. It’s kinda lounge-y, kind of modern 70s fern bar music, at brunch with a bloody mary, after Saturday night at the disco. Where’s my eggs benedict?

“Close to Me,” The Cure. Standing on A Beach: The Singles. Speaking of soundtracks and such, I’ve always thought this song would be perfect for a movie ending. Maybe not as perfect as the next song, but I’d have to see the movie first.

“Just Like Honey,” Jesus & Mary Chain. Lost in Translation Soundtrack. Tokyo is in my top three places I want to see. Sofia Coppola must have done wonders for tourism, because the movie is so beautiful. I actually just like to look at the city’s night sky on the DVD menu. This song sets the perfect tone, the melancholy feeling of leaving some extraordinary place to go back to ordinary life.

“Freaky Styley,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Freaky Styley. This reminds me of college, of crushes on guys on skateboards, of going to see this band at Club Clearview (In Dallas. In March, 1989. Wow.) and having the crowd dancing and moving so much, the stage was bouncing. I also remember thinking back then that I got more information about what was inside men’s heads from listening to this band than from any article in a woman’s magazine. After all, the refrain is “I f#%k ‘em just to see the look on their face…”

“Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes. The Ultimate Collection: Diana Ross & The Supremes. Oh, Miss Ross. Could this be a more perfect juxtaposition to the last song? Baby, where did our love go? Well. Oh, folks, I’m not that cynical. I have the greatest husband in the world. But you could do a mash-up of these two songs and have a Sex And The City episode…of course, it might be Samantha singing “Freaky Styley,” and not one of the guys. Ha!

*images from amazon.com

Monday, February 23, 2009

Catching Up

Today I am working on my post about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I completed for the 9 for '09 challenge. I'll probably also spend some time looking at a terrific new (to me) blog about books and music that I found this morning: Largehearted Boy. It has a feature called Book Notes, where authors discuss music they associate with their books, as well as a section called Note Books, where musicians discuss books. How cool is that? A large chunk of my day just disappeared, I can already tell.

I'm also dedicating some time this week to read about and research the wonderful world of freelancing. I've got a couple of books, The Four Hour Work Week and My So-Called Freelance Life, that I hope to talk about next week.

In reading, I've moved onto Isabella Moon, and after that I'll be picking up Falling Leaves for the World Citizen challenge.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Salon: Favorite Books, vol. 1

When I dislike a book, even if I have plenty of reason to do so, I still feel bad about it. Last night I kept thinking about Goldengrove and whether I had been too harsh, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was having the same feeling I get when I watch a film with a favorite actor or actress and I realize that person is just phoning it in. Had Goldengrove been a first novel, I probably would have kept reading. Mind you, I would have continued to curse the editor, the agent, and everyone with whom the writer had shared the manuscript, but I would have understood the precariousness of the situation. With a seasoned writer like Francine Prose, I would think someone would tell her the book wasn’t up to snuff.

I’m not here to dwell on that, though. Instead I want to talk about my favorite books--or one of them, at least. Favorite books aren’t necessarily the best books, the classics, the books that make “must read” lists, or even best sellers. They’re books that speak to our own experience, that seem to be a response, maybe, to the voices in our own heads. They are like glasses we don that make our view of the world clearer, sharper. They tell us their secrets, and they hold ours.

One of my favorite books happens to be a first novel: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I remember, very distinctly, reading an interview with Tartt in Vanity Fair, just before the book was released. I was in my first semester of graduate school, and the notions I held regarding higher learning and teaching were as romantic as the notions Richard Papen, the book’s main character, has about Hampden College:

Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of little mission towns. For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with weak, academic light--different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known--a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence.
Never mind that I went to a state university only thirty miles from home, that its library was an ugly brick rectangle situated in the middle of campus. I shared offices with the other teaching fellows in the musty basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus, from a time when the school had been a state teachers college. It housed an auditorium with a large pipe organ, and when music students would come in to practice, I would feel as though I were in New England instead of Texas.

In The Secret History, Richard Papen looks back to tell the story of his time at Hampden, where he is drawn to an elite, exclusive group of students who study Greek. As they slowly warm to him and accept him into their ranks, he discovers they have a secret. This is a mystery of sorts, less about the murder that takes place on the first page than about love and longing, and wanting to belong. The first part of the book deals with Richard’s journey to Hampden, his involvement with the Greek students, and the acts that lead them to the murder. The second part of the book deals with the eventual unraveling of this tight-knit circle, as they struggle to conceal what they‘ve done.

Even as the horror of what they’ve done dawns on Richard, he remains so enthralled that even as he looks back to tell the story, his view of his friends remains gilded:
[I] have trouble reconciling my life to those of my friends, or at least to their lives as I perceive them to be. Charles and Camilla are orphans (how I longed for this harsh fate!) reared by grandmothers and great aunts in a house in Virginia: a childhood I like to think about, with horses and rivers and sweet-gum trees. And Francis. His mother, when she had him, was only seventeen…and, as Francis is fond of saying, the grandparents brought them up like brother and sister, him and his mother, brought them up in such magnanimous style that even the gossips were impressed--English nannies and private schools, summers in Switzerland, winters in France. Consider even bluff old bunny, if you would. Not a child of reefer coats and dancing lessons, any more than mine was. But an American childhood…an upbringing vitally present in bunny in every respect, from the way he shook your hand to the way he told a joke.

I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except the knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company.
Plot-wise, if Tartt were not so strictly in control of Richard’s character--his longing, his ambivalence--the events would seem implausible, but the characters are so well-drawn, and Richard’s vision is so clear that what happens seems not only possible but necessary. Almost everyone longs for exclusivity of some sort, to belong at the core of something, to be a part of a group that makes them more than the tiny individual soul suffering alone. This is the reason churches and political parties exist, why nationalism and patriotism are popular, why high school students become athletes and cheerleaders, why we spend our lives searching so hard for others with whom we identify.

The book definitely has its flaws, the main one being that the second part seems to slow to a crawl about halfway through, as the characters begin to break down, and there’s a jarring character development and event at the end that seems to package things up in a way that seems to go against the book’s sensibility. Still, as a whole, it works. Like Richard, I spent so much time as a child and a teenager wishing for a life far different from the one I had, and books always carried me away, let me be somewhere else for a while. Like Richard, I only wanted to be somewhere beautiful and to belong. I’m not sure anymore if I love this book because it reminds me of who I was at a particular time, of if I love it for itself. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

You can read the Vanity Fair interview (from September 1992) with Donna Tartt here.

More passages:
I honestly can't remember much else about those years except a certain mood that penetrated most of them, a melancholy feeling I associate with watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day--early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong--but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom.
It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside--airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the tables, on the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor...Everywhere I looked was something beautiful--Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels--a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.
I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loves to wander from the subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind in narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a qulaity of intelligence one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
We had so many happy days in the country that fall that from this vantage they merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. Around Halloween the last, stubborn wildflowers died away and the wind became sharp and gusty, blowing showers of yellow leaves on the gray, wrinkled surface of the lake. On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers.
*image from amazon.com

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reader's Journal: Goldengrove

I very rarely abandon a book. Sometimes I will set a book down because I am distracted or not in the mood for it, but usually I have every intention of picking it up again. Abandoning a book, for me, is a deliberate and aggressive act. I do it because I feel like the author is wasting my time.

Goldengrove is the story of thirteen-year-old Nico, who loses her sister (she dies of a heart-attack in the first chapter) and then over the following summer becomes involved with her sister's boyfriend. Blah blah blah what it means to be a grown-up. Blah blah blah art and life. Blah blah blah things aren't what they seem...heartache shall ensue, as shall wisdom.

I abandoned Goldengrove at the end of the second chapter. I'm trying to keep in mind the rule set forth by Updike: "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt." Question: can I blame him (or her) for not achieving what he (or she) did attempt? Let's assume I can, because that will make things easier. The number one problem I have with this novel is the fact that Francine Prose has created a first-person narrator, a thirteen-year-old girl, and her voice is completely inauthentic. Apart from the fact that Prose has created the cliche "wiser-than-her-years" budding teenager, she's also given her a prop vocabulary. She's sure to throw in references to the Internet, to BlackBerries, to global warming, to yoga, to Goth. For real? It sounds like someone, you know, trying to be "hip to the kids." Just listen, as Nico stands outside the cemetary after her sister's burial:

Who'd drunk that Diet Coke? A mourner? A cemetary worker? Cheating couples? Goth nerds who haunted the graveyard for fun?
Yes, yes, Diet Coke: choice drink of cheating couples and "Goth nerds" everywhere. Even a young teenager knows that cheating couples would probably have been more likely to abandon a wine bottle than a Diet Coke can.

Goth nerds? I have a vision of Prose hiring a teenager to guide her through a mall and asking questions like, "And those kids, with the black clothes and black nail polish and the math textbooks and the tape on their glasses? What do you call them?" And on that note, how about a Red Bull can, or Mountain Dew? Oh, I know, I seem off the point here, because Nico's just wondering who it was who left the can (because she's trying to distract herself from the pain), but it just sounds so stilted and silly, I can't get past it.

After the funeral, Nico explains: "My parents worked it out so I could skip final exams and get the As I would have gotten anyway." Well. It's a good thing Nico doesn't seem one-dimensional, like one of those precocious stereotypes you see in movies. I'm sorry, but someone struggling to pass science or history is just more interesting. Making her a straight-A student just seems to be setting up one of those "summer I bloomed emotionally" stories, where the heart catches up with the head. I don't mind those stories, but only if the character has depth. I started thinking that maybe Prose--who apparently also writes YA--needed to read more Judy Blume, so she could get a sense of an authentic teen voice.

Oh, and the sister. The dead sister, the torch-singing seventeen year old, the great beauty with the flawed heart (literally--she dies of a heart attack), beloved of Aaron, master painter of the senior class:
Margaret was the singer, Aaron the artist. They were the glamour couple, their radiance outshone the feeble gleam of the football captain and his slutty cheerleader girlfriend.
Oh yes, teen painters are revered in high schools all across America. We care little for sports. Still, way to play to stereotypes, even by way of comparison. And mind you, Margaret is no Britney Spears. Oh no. She makes grown men cry by singing the classics, like "My Funny Valentine." And still, the kids love her too! Revere her! Not an eye rolling in the house. I find it kinda implausible, in case you can't tell.

Let me not forget to point out the terrific use of cliched metaphors: "One thing happened, then everything else, like a domino falling and setting off a collapse," or "I nodded like a bobble-head doll." Bobble-head doll! The kids love those!

But the part that made me finally just close the book and give up entirely was this:
One thing I would never tell them was that Margaret's last words were 'Smoke this.' That was her special present for me, the hair shirt she'd left me to wear until time and age and forgetfulness laundered it into something softer.
Yes. Done in by the image of the laundered hair shirt. Until Downey breaks it down, she carries the burden that she mentioned to her fabulous sister with the heart problem that she shouldn't smoke. Don't get me wrong. Writing is difficult. But if Prose dragged this into an undergraduate writing workshop, she would probably be called out. One wonders why or how the bar lowers just because someone's a recognized name, a published writer. She should fire her editor.

If you want to read a good coming-of-age story about two sisters, I'd suggest The Invisible Circus, by Jennifer Egan.

*image from amazon.com