"Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" by Gregory Maguire (audiobook) (erinreads.com)I’ve been on a Gregory Maguire binge lately. Not so much because I’ve been loving his books, but more because they’ve been taking up space on my shelves and I wanted to know if they deserved their place! I recently tore through the Wicked Years series, then listened to Mirror, Mirror (which I didn’t like enough to bother reviewing). The sixth and final Maguire title on my shelves was Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

About the Book:

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is, as you might guess from the title, a retelling of the classic fairytale Cinderella — the “real” version behind the legend.

Margarethe and her two daughters, Iris and Ruth, arrive in the Netherlands, Margarethe’s country of birth, after a violent incident in their adopted home country of England. Ruth, the older sister, is large and slow of mind; Iris is plain but quick-witted. After searching and begging for work, the three finally find a temporary place with a painter whose star seems poised to rise. But power-hungry Margarethe cannot be content with her place and is always on the lookout for opportunities to climb the social ladder, no matter the cost.

My Thoughts:

Of all the novels by Gregory Maguire I’ve read — six in all — I think this one was my favorite. I still didn’t love it, but at least it told a good story without slipping into too much darkness (the way Wicked, my second favorite, eventually did).

I liked Iris, as I think you’re supposed to. She’s curious and clever, the only logical one in her family. The story is told in limited third person through her eyes, which opens her character up more than the others’. She is still mostly a child as the story unfolds, but you can see the beginnings of the adult she’ll grow into forming before your eyes. The other character I liked especially was Caspar, the painter’s apprentice. Good-natured and friendly, he is kind to Iris when the rest of the world is cruel.

Mild spoiler alert!

I appreciated that the precious Clara (our Cinderella) was not as unwillingly consigned to a servant’s life as she is in the Disney version. Margarethe may be borderline insane, but her daughters mean Clara no harm, and no one forces her to live out her days amongst the fireplace ashes. She is so much more human than the usual portrayal of this particular role, and I appreciated that.

The writing style, the bizarre tidbits of eccentricity, the tinge of dark magical/mysterious presence — all those elements I’ve come to expect from Maguire are present in Confessions. What I appreciated about this book more than his others is that he stayed on track, kept a few of the characters sufficiently likable, and resisted plunging too deeply into weirdness or darkness. All of that meant his creativity around crafting the “real” version of a well-known fairytale could shine.

As with the others of his books, though I own the print copies, I listened to Confessions. It was read by Jenny Sterlin, who did a nice job. Her narration never got in the way of the story, which is the mark of a good reader in my opinion. (A great one brings the character s/he narrates for to life; Sterlin didn’t quite reach that level.)

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Honestly, if someone asked me where to start with Gregory Maguire’s stuff, I’d probably recommend Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, followed by Wicked if the person liked Maguire’s style. It won’t be making my favorites list, but it was enjoyable enough to listen to.

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Long ago, when I first started blogging about books, I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. It was cute enough, so when I came across another of her novels, Strawberry Fields, I picked it up.

About the Book:

"Strawberry Fields" by Marina Lewycka (erinreads.com)Clever, ambitious, opinionated, but slightly naive Irina is the newest recruit to the strawberry-picking operation in rural England. She’s come west in the hopes of earning better money than she can back home. She joins Marta, Yola, and Tomasz from Poland, Vitaly from origins about which he is vague, Emmanuel from Malawi, two Chinese girls none of the others can tell apart, and Andriy, who is, like herself, from Ukraine. Stuffed into two small trailers for living quarters, the workers bond together in a ragtag kind of community.

Their tentative position doesn’t last long, though. An incident with the strawberry farmer and his wife turns the pickers’ world upside down and flings them out into the great wide world of England.

My Thoughts:

I am not sure what compelled me to finish this book. Honestly, I didn’t like it much. Perhaps it was a mild curiosity about where Lewycka was going with all the randomness that kept me reluctantly flipping pages.

To start with, the narration is weird. The chapters are long; within them, the story is told through short chunks from various characters. Irina speaks in the first person, even though she does not appear to be the single primary character. Emmanuel’s parts are written as letters to his sister in what I have to admit is an interestingly constructed flavor of English all his own. The other pickers’ perspectives are narrated in limited third person. Eventually there is a dog who speaks without grammar and in all caps, beginning and ending each utterance with “I AM DOG.” It just…never hung together for me.

The way Lewycka writes about her characters feels like she is making fun of them. This is particularly true of the characters who don’t end up figuring as prominently in the overall story. I never came to care about any of them, as they all seemed like caricatures of themselves. I know that style can certainly work, but personally I don’t tend to love books where I have no attachment to any of the characters. (Unless, of course, select forms of literary pyrotechnics are being executed well…which is not the case here.)

Then there was the story itself. Many elements felt exaggerated, silly, stretched to the point of being farcical. There were coincidences and chance meetings out the wazoo. Ok, fine. No problem there, I suppose. But then, out of the blue, something horribly dark would happen, or I’d find out almost by way of a P.S. that something awful had befallen a character. At the edge of this bright, borderline ridiculous world, something twisted and black was nibbling throughout. The result was a novel that felt out of sync with itself.

I did finish it. There were a few touching scenes, where a kind of tender humanness broke through before the extremes crowded it out again. And by the end, the characters who are still a part of the main story have at last acquired a kind of three-dimensional shape to them to replace the stereotyped roles they’d played initially. Lewycka also did a nice job tying up loose ends, which I appreciated. But the book never won me over. My satisfaction came from making it through, rather than from the story itself.

The Verdict: Mediocre

Obviously I didn’t love Strawberry Fields. It may just be that it was way out of alignment with my personal preferences. You won’t find me recommending it, though. I liked Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian better.

Your Turn!

What books have you read that felt out of step with themselves? Is that something you like, or does it get on your nerves?

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I’ve been collecting John Irving’s better known novels since I read The Cider House Rules in high school. I finally got around to reading (well, listening to) one of them.

About the Book:

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving (audiobook) on erinreads.comT.S. Garp’s mother wanted a child, but she did not want to give her life to a man to get one. So, she conceived her son in a rather odd and controversial way: by sleeping with an injured World War II veteran she cared for as a nurse just before he died.

That’s the beginning of The World According to Garp. What unspools as the pages turn is Garp’s life in its entirety: childhood, marriage, writing career, family, and eventual death. Interspersed are pieces of his writing and bits of his mother’s history. I could say more about what happens, but that would just be a mess of spoilers!

My Thoughts:

I liked The World According to Garp well enough. It was a strange story, full of odd people and bizarre incidents and surprising episodes of violence. It’s not a story you can really get close to, I think — more one that you follow at arm’s length. That alone is enough to keep it from being the newest addition to my list of favorites. I tend to prefer books I can connect with, and this wasn’t one of them. Still, it was pretty good.

Irving has this interesting ability to create characters you like and care for sufficiently, but that you never get overly attached to. It’s like the difference between watching a movie on a huge screen in a dark theater with surround sound and watching it on a laptop in your brightly lit living room. You might like both experiences equally, and there’s nothing wrong with either, but one feels much more immersive than the other. Irving’s writing, at least in The World According to Garp, is more like the laptop than the theater.

There were parts when the story seemed to drift beyond the confines of what could reasonably be expected to happen in a realistic novel, somehow, and that got to me just a little. It felt like certain incidents were too well planned to seem natural. They didn’t bother me, really, except for a little nagging disbelief in the back of my head now and then.

I did like how Irving worked bits of Garp’s writing into the novel itself. I’ve always enjoyed the “story within a story” approach when done well. But in this case, it was also quite interesting to see the relationship between what Garp was writing and what was going on in his life — probably Irving’s intention, if I had to guess. Everything from theme to language to vibe shifted depending on where Garp was in his life, and you can see what’s seeped over or been transposed somehow and worked into the stories.

Michael Prichard read the audio version I listened to. It’s an old recording — from the 1980s, I believe — so the sound quality isn’t great. His voice was a little tinny and crackly, hard to listen to at high volumes. Still, he worked for the book. His narration had that same detached feel I get from Irving’s relationship to his characters, somehow. And his no-nonsense voice seemed to suit Irving’s no-nonsense prose.

I knew The World According to Garp was made into a movie. I’ve not seen it, and based on my ambivalent feelings toward the book and my general dissatisfaction with movie adaptations, I wasn’t planning to. Then I looked up who’s in it. Robin Williams? John Lithgow? Glenn Close?? Maybe I’m going to have to see it after all!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I don’t really have any complaints to lodge against The World According to Garp. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t feel any sort of emotional attachment to it. A Prayer for Owen Meany is on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year, so I’ll get another chance to see how I like Irving soon.

Your Turn!

Do you like your books to hold you at a distance or get up close and personal? What’s a good example of your preference that you loved?

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Despite the fact that I didn’t much care for Thrity Umrigar’s later novel, The Weight of Heaven, and put her memoir, First Darling of the Morning, aside after just a couple of chapters, I’d heard enough good things about The Space Between Us that I decided to give Umrigar one more chance.

About the Book:

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (erinreads.com)Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for more years than she can count. She’s seen Sera, now middle-aged, through the early years of a tumultuous marriage, the birth of her daughter Dinaz, the death of her husband Feroz, and everything in between. Even now that Dinaz and her husband are grown and living with Sera, Bhima continues to come each day to do the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning. She and her orphaned granddaughter, Maya, are as close to the Dubash clan as people from very different worlds can be in Bombay society. In fact, Sera often draws criticism for how well she treats her servant.

Bhima’s life outside the Dubash household is hard. She and Maya live in a rickety hut in one of Bombay’s sprawling slums. Her family was torn apart years ago, and now Maya is all she has. Sera was kind enough to help Maya get into and finance college, and Bhima had dreams of a life for Maya that didn’t involve cleaning up after someone else’s family. But Maya has gotten herself pregnant, father unknown, and the shame of it has forced her to drop out of classes.

That’s how the stage is set at the start of The Space Between Us. What follows is a short span concerning future events, interspersed between great swaths of reverie and remembrance as Sera and Bhima alternately dip into their pasts to reveal their own family stories and the crucial moments that knit their own relationship ever closer together.

My Thoughts:

Of the three of Thrity Umrigar’s books I’ve now tried, I liked The Space Between Us most. It held my attention all the way through, was nicely written, and had characters I cared about, more or less. Still, I didn’t love it. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Somehow, the book felt predictable. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I didn’t know any of the details before I read them, but that didn’t matter. The outline, the overall shape of the story fell into place the way I’d subconsciously expected. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means. One of the lovely things about fiction is how it can reveal what is to us. Some novels can show the truth of the world in a way that delights, or enlightens, or catches at your heart. For me, The Space Between Us did none of those, though. It felt inevitable, decided from the start, a toy train engine wound up and set on its track. I finished the book no more moved or enlightened than I had been when I’d started.

It’s certainly written well enough. The language flows, carrying the story along on its back. The transitions between present and past were fluid and effortless, and rarely did I lose track of when an event was occurring. The relationship between Bhima and the Dubash family felt real, in all aspects. The characters acted as one might expect them to. And Bombay society did, too.

I wonder if part of the problem for me was that the story bordered on overkill. Bhima and Sera have both had extremely hard lives, though perhaps Bhima more so. It’s a stream of one awful thing after another. And while I absolutely do not deny that such lives exist and that I am extremely lucky not to have lived one so far, when the only things that happen to characters in a novel are negative, you start to expect that whatever comes next, it will probably follow the established pattern. Sera and Bhima shared each other’s lives for decades, and yet the events in The Space Between Us that appear to draw them together are all tragic. Maybe if they’d bonded over and recalled the bright spots, too, I might have felt differently.

Also: without giving anything away, I’ll say that the ending didn’t do it for me. It felt too abrupt (and yet also somehow predictable). I needed more.

In short? I didn’t hate the book, but I feel no attachment to it, either.

The Verdict: Mediocre

I think perhaps Thrity Umrigar is another Ann Patchett for me — an author most readers seem to appreciate but about whose fiction there is something that turns me off. As the vague issues I had with the book are largely personal, I wouldn’t caution others not to read it. But I think I, for one, am done with Thrity Umrigar’s novels.

Your Turn!

What books that the world seems to love do you actually not so much like?

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Years ago, when Wicked the musical first came out, I read the book on which it was based: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I’d forgotten most of it, though, and I’d never read the other three books in the series. So when I came across all four on audio at my library, I decided to revisit them.

I’ll do my best to avoid major spoilers, but no promises since I’ll be discussing all four books in the review that follows!

About the Books:

The Wicked Years series by Gregory MaguireThe four books — Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz — chronicle the people and events of the Oz made famous in our world when Dorothy Gale blew there from Kansas in a twister. They begin with the birth of Elphaba Thropp — the future Wicked Witch of the West — and they continue through several generations.

Wicked

Wicked is probably the best known of the series. It tells of the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, starting with her birth and following her through her college years, her friendship with Galinda (later shortened to Glinda), her rebellious period spent working against the Wizard, the events that brought her to live alone in a castle in the far reaches of Oz, and eventually to her death. Its culmination is Dorothy’s fateful trip to Oz and the mission given her by the Wizard as payment for his helping her get home to Kansas.

Son of a Witch

Son of a Witch tells the story of Liir, Elphaba’s son. It begins when he is a young man, found unconscious and battered in a desolate area and nursed back to health by a religious order of women. In his comatose state, his memory dips back into his past, filling readers in on the gap in time, until he wakes up. Then the story picks up from the present and follows his struggle to figure out who he is and what part he might play in the growing crisis facing Oz.

A Lion Among Men

A Lion Among Men is the Cowardly Lion’s story. His name is Brrr, and he has been sent by the government of Oz to the same religious order that cared for Liir to search for a magical book rumored to have been among Elphaba’s possessions. We learn his past and the past of another key character as he interviews one of the order’s oldest members. Most of this installment is backward-looking; only at the very end does anything happen to move the present-day narrative forward.

Out of Oz

Out of Oz, the final volume, is double the length of the others. It tracks several bands of companions in changing configurations, chronicling long periods of waiting and watching before much of anything happens. Oz grows ever more dangerous, and the various players we’ve met in previous books struggle to hide the magical objects they possess, or the bloodlines that run in their veins, or both. Before the book ends, some — though not all — of the threads left loose in the other books are finally tied together.

My Thoughts:

Well, Wicked is definitely my favorite of the four. I like the clever way in which it alludes to the version of Dorothy’s story we know. I think inventing new circumstances for familiar stories is a large part of Maguire’s skill.

I was less sold on his original creations. Their plots continue long after Elphaba is gone, and no other character seems able to step forward and fill the powerful and compelling role she held in the first book. It felt, just a little, like something was missing, like her absence left a bit of a void in the rest of the series. (Perhaps that was intentional?) I think Out of Oz was my second favorite, then A Lion Among Men, and finally Son of a Witch.

It’s not that the three later books are bad. They’re interesting enough. But they struck me as rambly and kind of pointless in parts, like Maguire wasn’t quite sure how to fill his pages, or like he felt he must account for every moment each character had been alive up to that point. There’s lots of waiting for signs and doubling back and wondering what to do next. There’s definitely enough of a plot line running through everything to keep you engaged and guessing, but I think if had I read the books instead of listening I might have gotten bored in places.

It’s quite possible Maguire meant for his books to read this way. I heard an interview with him, recorded after the first book was published, in which he talked about how he intentionally left loose ends in Wicked, because that’s how real life is. The same reasoning might explain why he didn’t cut out all the boring bits from the later books. After all, for most of us, life is boring more than it’s exciting, eh? It’s funny…I don’t think I’d have noticed so much had the novels been set in our world. It’s because they’re fantastical that I have this different set of expectations for them. Were I a citizen of Oz, reading the stories just after they’d happened, no doubt I’d be thrilled to my toes!

I do have to say that Maguire is quite good at creating worlds for his novels to unfold in. Oz has a well-traveled geography, a history and a mythology, several religions, government and legal systems, political strife, and social hierarchy, all of which are consistent and expanded upon over the course of the four novels. There are so very many characters in these books, and an impressive number have their own histories and personalities, according to the degree to which they’re involved in the story. And the relationships between people, places, and events just get stronger throughout the series.

I liked the audio productions, too. Well, three of them, anyway! John McDonough reads the first, third, and fourth books, and though he struck me as a little too gruff at first, it didn’t take long for him to win me over. Gregory Maguire reads Son of a Witch himself, and though he does a better job than some authors I’ve heard read their own works, I’d have preferred McDonough — and not just for the sake of consistency. Most of Maguire’s character voices sounded strangely robotic, and many of the women had lower voices than the men. Still, I’d definitely recommend the audio versions if you’re thinking about picking up the series. When you get to Son of a Witch, just know that McDonough comes back for the second half!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Overall, I’m quite happy I finally made it through the whole series, and I’m glad I chose audio as the way to go. It’s a mostly engaging and inventive story, even if it’s significantly darker than the version of Dorothy’s story we’re used to.

Your Turn!

What authors do you know of who tell alternate versions of familiar tales?

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