Let's start with the book I finished just yesterday evening, Amanda Coe's What They Do in the Dark. Briefly, it's set in England, the two main characters young school girls from different social classes.
Pauline is dirty and unkempt (one reviewer calls her "semi-feral"), living in a crowded, filthy flat in a bad part of town. Her mother pops in and out as it suits her and Pauline alternately adores and fears her, depending on her mother's mood. Her father is not in the picture.
There is no water in their bathroom, so Pauline smells badly, her hygiene non-existent. Understandably, her social skills are off-kilter. She has a tough, occasionally violent exterior covering a soft inner core – the part that longs for the love of a mother, for a safe life with stability. Despite it all, Pauline's a good student. Surprisingly, she attends school more often than not and it's obvious that, in a different setting, she would be a totally different child.
The other girl, Gemma, is Pauline's only friend, and an inconstant one at that. Sometimes out of fear of Pauline's occasional outbursts, other times from the inconstancy of young girls' friendships, Gemma alternately avoids and pals around with her. Pauline is, simply, desperate for anyone to like her and admires and adores Gemma, an unremarkable girl just popular enough to be a desirable friend.
Gemma herself is obsessed by a child actor named Lallie, whom she romanticizes as young girls are wont to do. When it's announced Lallie will be coming to the school to film – and scout for talented girls – Gemma is over the moon. Pauline could hardly care less but horns her way in, during one of her down periods with Gemma.
Alongside this, another classmate – a young black girl named Cynthia – likewise yearns for the constancy of a friendship with Gemma, the only girl willing to sit alongside her at lunch. Occasionally the two play games during recess periods, infuriating Pauline. Gemma takes pity on the girl, giving her some of the food off her tray. This enrages Pauline, drawing out her open hostility. She kicks Cynthia under the table, calling her horrible names. Cynthia, who seems to either have a mental disability or is so nervous and insecure she will not stand up for herself, is far too passive to complain. All she does is grin, making her seem slow-witted and an easy target.
How these plotlines come together is somewhat complicated to explain and the beef I have with the book. The Gemma/Pauline/Cynthia situation is on the one hand, the Lallie the young star on the other – Gemma the focus of both. Mixed in are characters whose presence seems unnecessary, as they don't contribute to the storyline in any real way. They're half-developed, yet take up too much space. There are also bits of scenes involving Lallie's acting, tossed in as an attempt to foreshadow events not even all that large a part of the plot.
Violence against the weak and vulnerable – and the advantage often taken of children – comprises the main theme, along with the Lord of the Flies inevitability of relationships between young girls on the cusp of adolescence. And, while the writing itself is lovely, far above the average, the plot just doesn't quite get there. There's too much padding, too many side plots that go nowhere, frustrating the reader.
The end, horrific in its violence, springs up rather suddenly, not blending in well. It makes sense things culminate as they do but the whole outline of the book is skewed, characters who should remain in the background come too far forward.The main focus is fuzzy.
As such, I can't recommend the book. Coe should keep writing. I sincerely hope she does but her plot framework needs to tighten up, leading to a more cohesive story. I suspect her editor was so charmed with her skillful prose s/he didn't require quite enough revision. And what a difference that could have made! It's agonizing. There's just so much potential here and it's not quite realized. And it's just so, so close.
Just for a lark, I want to include a particularly hilarious review of the book I found on Amazon. God willing I don't get sued:
" … The setting is in Britain or somewhere which means it is also using that language. I didn't understand any of their sayings so I am sure I missed keys things in the book. I love to read and can devour books in 1 day but I really had a hard time getting through this one. I found the book very boring and only stuck with it because 1) I paid for it and 2) I was hoping it would get better somehow. I am sure Amanda Coe is a very competent writer and I would be willing to look at other things she wrote, however this is not one of them. Unless you really understand British terminology, I would not recommend this book at all."
[I read a library copy of this book.]
Apart from Coe's novel, I've been working my way through A.J. Jacobs' Drop Dead Healthy. A writer of "experiential nonfiction," A.J. has previously written about other things self-improvement related. He's working on interview questions I sent him last week and once I've finished the book I'll write all that up to either peddle on the streets or publish here. Or both, copyright willing.
DDH is about his attempt to become more healthy himself, as well as to investigate various advice handed out by "those who know," advice often conflicting from one expert to another. He's so damn funny, his book a light but informative read. It's a nice break from reading about English schoolgirls beating on each other. It will also leave you feeling more than a little sorry for his long-suffering wife. Like me, you may wish she'd write her own book one day, about her life with A.J. I sorely hope she will.
[A review copy, provided by A.J.'s publicist.]
Somewhat surprising to me, I've also started reading a book by an author I have despised on general principle, based on the revulsion I feel about his genre: taking the texts of classics and adding vampires, zombies and such to them, tampering with the sacred, as far as this English major is concerned. Pastiche, they call it but I won't tell you the word I use to describe this vile trend. Hint: it's not one I'd use in polite society.
The whole concept of this new form of writing is so repulsive to me I can't even tell you. It's lowdown, cheap and dirty, and I don't care who read it and thought it was entertaining. Let's take a work of art and add supernatural blather to it! Anyone could do that. I could do that. The difference is, I never would. People who think Weird Al Yankovic funny may find his books thigh-slappers. They make me feel nauseous.
But then came Unholy Night, written by the same author. It takes the story of the three wise men and turns it on its ear. I'm an unapologetically practicing Heathen, it's true. What appealed most to me was the great potential for humor, using a story we pretty much all know and adding his own twisted style. And he doesn't exactly take the Bible as his primary work. He doesn't go that far. Rather, he expands on a more twisted idea of who these "kings" may have been. I haven't read much of it at all but so far it's better than I'd imagined it would be.
Funny, I take much more offense at his daring to reduce Abraham Lincoln but don't bat an eye when he turns his attention to something biblical.
Did I mention I'm a Heathen?
[Reading a library copy of this book.]
A quick peek at a few other books I'm in various stages of reading:
Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig (My own copy of this NYRB edition, though they've sent me a few others as I told them I'd like to make reviewing these editions a regular addition to my blog.)
The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher (A library copy so overdue I must surrender it soon and check out later…)
The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal (Another library copy, ditto with the one above!)
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (To be reviewed in Library Journal.)
Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women by Barbara Sicherman (Kindle book and it's WONDERFUL!)
My interview with A.J. Jacobs
Thoughts on The Chicago Tribune's new "Printers Row" insert
Reviews and Various Opinions