24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Month: April 2016

Abby Reads: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow by Fiona Barton
NAL, 2016, 336 pages
Thriller

Fiona Barton’s The Widow is a debut novel about the life of a woman before and after the death of her husband, who has been accused of the kidnap and assumed murder of a little girl. Although Glen, the widow’s husband, maintains that he had nothing to do with Bella’s disappearance, both the media and the law are convinced otherwise. Now that Glen has died in apparent bus accident, the truth will out. With a nonlinear pattern and nebulous characters, Barton’s first novel is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The Widow came to my attention through Book Riot’s podcast, Dear Book Nerd. Show host Rita Mead discussed the book with glee, holding back spoilers for the “big reveal,” of the book and essentially convinced me to read it with her enthusiasm in an episode from several months ago. I generally prefer not to take recommendations from others, especially if I don’t actually know the person giving the recommendation. I should have stuck with my unspoken policy on this one, because, while The Widow was a quick read and not the worst book I’ve ever picked up, it’s not something I would have chosen for myself.

One of the reasons I’ve been so hesitant to get into “adult” fiction (as opposed to the young adult or YA fiction I usually read), is that I’ve found many of the adult fiction “bestsellers” I’ve picked up have been shallow in various ways. The Widow was a prime example of this. Although there’s nothing trivial about the subject matter of (and if I haven’t made it clear by now, this review might use some upsetting language, concepts, etc., so read on at your own risk) the abduction, sexual abuse, and murder of a child (or anyone), I ultimately felt that Barton’s writing was more about pure entertainment than anything else. That might be okay for some people, but I personally feel that if you’re going to use a topic like such as in The Widow, there needs to be more substance than just shock value.

Part of what drew me into the novel to begin with was Mead’s promise that the twist was stunning. I’m always up for a big twist, so I went in expecting and anticipating it inThe Widow. Frankly, the “twist” wasn’t a twist at all. I can’t blame this entirely on the book because I obviously had some expectations going into it, but plenty of context within the book suggested a twist was coming – the nonlinear timeline, the withholding of information, the use of multiple points of view – and it simply never did.

This brings me to my next grievance: multiple points of view. The Widow is told in both third and first person, with chapters in which the widow, Jean, stars, being in first person and all else in third. Third-person chapters primarily focus on a police detective intent on proving Glen Taylor’s guilt and a journalist equally fixed on worming the real story out of Jean. Other characters, too, have their chapters. As a general rule, I dislike books that use multiple points of view or lenses and there are few exceptions where it’s done well. In The Widow, this strategy felt more like Barton’s attempt to do some literary tricks rather than attempt to accomplish anything. There was really no benefit to this method.

Barton’s writing style is campy in some places, particularly when she inhabits the mind of the obsessed detective. In moments as Jean, the author makes a naïve and child-like caricature of the character, which perhaps says something about Glen’s pedophilia, but never feels realistic or natural. The reader can hardly believe Jean is able to take care of herself, let alone keep the secrets she’s charged with and harbor conflicting feelings about her late husband. Drawing from her own experience as a journalist, Barton also writes her journalist character as a quippy woman I’d sooner expect in a cheesy-ish cop show.

The Widow is a surface drama, never truly assuming the literary fiction it could be, but failing to deliver a cohesive and comfortably-flowing plot. The book isn’t a total disaster and has its merits with small details that make scenes interesting, but it’s not a masterpiece.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Thoughts On: Floating Collections

I’m torn on my feelings about floating collections. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a floating collection can only occur within a library system with multiple branches. Rather than each branch “owning” the books that “live” in their building, the books belong to the system as a whole. So, let’s say your library system does not have a floating collection, but does have multiple branches. One day, you pick up a book from the Dog Branch Library. When you’re finished, you have some errands near the Cat Branch Library, so you return it to the Cat Branch, who then has it delivered to the Dog Branch. With a floating collection, you may pick up a book from the Dog Branch and return it to the Cat Branch, but the Cat Branch keeps it. The books, rather than being anchored to a particular location, float among the various branches, hence the term.

Within the last year, the Arlington Public Library in Virginia switched some specific collections from static to floating. Children’s board books (you know, those chunky-paged things, usually for infants and toddlers?), DVDs, and audiobooks are already floating. The young adult collection will begin floating on May 1. Systematically, branches worked through those subcollections and stuck blank labels over the existing branch labels. As items with branch labels were checked in, staff members did the same. No longer did the board books, DVDs, or audiobooks live at any particular branch. The same will soon be true for (most of) the young adult items.

The benefit (or, the goal) of floating collections is to create greater variety. This is especially important for smaller branches. According to the public catalog, there are a little over 28,000 items available at the Aurora Hills Branch. (A quick note — Aurora Hills does not have the smallest collection by any stretch; I’m most frequently present at this branch so I’m using it as opposed to Plaza, which only has 2,557 items [and it is a special case in and of itself in that it’s not a traditional branch is primarily used as a place for patrons to pick up holds on their way to and from work as it’s located just above a Metro subway station. Though a few items do “live” at the Plaza Branch, my understanding is these are newer or really popular items and weeding* occurs more regularly there or items are shipped off to live at other branches actually permanently after a while.] or Glencarlyn or Cherrydale, both of which have smaller collections than does Aurora Hills. I’m also omitting the special Local History and eMaterial collections for obvious reasons — a scientific study this is not.)

Libraries, of course, have their regulars. This may not be more or especially true in smaller branches, but it’s often more apparent. Patrons who do visit regularly and are at the mercy of a static or non-floating collection are faced with the same old options to browse, unless they wander over to the new book collection (which, at Aurora Hills, includes materials up to a year old**) or happen upon the small percentage of items that have become too old to sit on the new shelf any longer and have migrated to the general collection. Due to a number of factors, including building size and the general interests of the specific customer base at any given branch, it’s not practical to buy one or more new copy of every book, just because one branch decides their collection needs it.*** So, with a static collection, if patrons are the kind of people who prefer to browse to look for something to read, especially in small libraries and especially if the patron prefers a specific genre (am I the only one who doesn’t understand the popularity of the mystery genre? It’s a mystery to me!****), their options will be limited.

But what about patrons who prefer to go in to a library knowing what they want to get? As someone with a lengthy to-be-read list, this is often my strategy. I’m also not someone who plans what I’m going to read ahead of finishing what I’m currently reading most of the time. As soon as I finish something, I pick out the next thing and dive right into that. Floating collections make this challenging. I can check the online catalog, of course, before I leave for the library to go pick it up. But if the book is currently living at a library that’s a bit distant, I only have the options of going to that distant library, putting it on hold and waiting two or three days for it to reach me, or going with something else. It’s not the greatest hardship in the world, but I can see how it might annoy patrons who prefer to go into a library with a plan of what to get rather than a plan to browse.

There’s also the issue of duplicate copies at branches. If an immediate community for a library has a particular interest in a certain topic, author, or book, the library in that community may end up with a fairly homogeneous collection. Of course, this means that the library is doing a great job of meeting the conscious needs and interests of their community, but it can be really limiting. If users like to browse, the browse-able options will be much smaller and the opportunity to grow in knowledge and reading interest shrinks. I can’t say how severe the possibility of this is — I certainly haven’t run any detailed research studies on this, but I do see it as a possible consequence of floating collections. In fact, there are libraries that disagree with me here (and I admit it’s entirely possible that they’re right — after all, they have more access to real time, real life statistics on this than I do at the moment). In their document detailing their decision to switch to a floating collection, the Fairfax County Public Library notes, “Browsing at individual branch collections is enhanced by increasing the availability and diversity of items available on the shelves for customers” as one of the benefits of floating collections. You can read the rest of that document here. It more succinctly articulates some of what I’m discussing and offers an alternative and much more solid opinion than what I’m giving here.

Another challenge I’ve seen with the floating collection, particularly when it comes to things in a series, and even more especially when it comes to TV show DVDs is having duplicates of the same season and none of other seasons. It’s not uncommon for a patron to checkout an entire TV show to binge watch (hey, Netflix adds up and the library is free!). So when a patron brings up seasons one and three of House and asks me where season two is, the best I can tell them is that they can put it on hold and maybe get it in a few days. Is it good enough to encourage customers to plan ahead and place holds on all of a TV series if they want to check out the whole set?

So, this is why I don’t have a strong opinion either way about floating collections — or, rather, I have strong opinions both ways and they create this neutral space between them like the center of a rope in tug-of-war. As some libraries adopt digital-only environments, this becomes a non-issue: the library and its collections are everywhere you (or your phone, desktop, tablet, eReader, what-have-you) are. Maybe the solution — though impractical, if I’m being honest — is to give each library branch a core collection (added to, slowly) with the old standards and especially popular new items with a larger floating collection.

Or maybe we’ll go with a more science fiction approach with drone deliveries of books from online browsing endeavors, eliminating the need to go to the library for the purpose of picking up books (though I’ll maintain that in-person reference services, programs, and other in-person offerings at libraries will necessitate the physical manifestation of the library). Who knows what the future will bring to us bibliophiles and browsing addicts.

Does your library have a floating collection? Do you wish it did? What are your feelings on floating collections? Partially floating collections? I want to hear from you.

*Weeding is the process of physically removing items from the collection and digitally removing them from the catalog. This usually occurs when an item has not circulated in some time, is out of date, or is damaged and the library does not intend to replace it.

**This may mean items that were published up to a year ago and the library purchased as they were released or it may mean items that had been published more than a year ago but are new to the library. It’s up to the discretion of the staff and/or the folks at HQ (in the case of Arlington Public Library, the staff at the Central Branch) — or a combination of the staffs of multiple branches.

***There are exceptions to this, particularly when it comes to highly anticipated books. When Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published (my personal feelings on the ethical issues surrounding the publication of the manuscript aside), Arlington Public Library ordered at least seventy-five print copies to be divided among the eight branches (though not evenly, as the demand at each branch would differ); this does not include large print copies, eBook copies, audiobook or eAudiobook renderings. Despite this huge number, the holds went on for months (and continue, now, though there are plenty of copies for individuals who are on hold — at the time of writing, nine people had requested the book: enough for each to have eight copies each! Though, at the moment, 124 people are on hold for the ten available eBooks and thirty-nine have requested the ten eAudiobook copies; interestingly, physical copies of both are immediately available for pickup, but it would appear these patrons either would prefer the digital copies or don’t realize the availability of the physical. But that’s a whole other topic.)

****No, I didn’t just say I don’t understand the popularity of mystery to make that joke. Yes, I absolutely took advantage of it anyway. Yes, I’ll see myself out now.

Abby Reads: How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, 368 pages
Fiction

I heard about How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer when I attended the annual Virginia Library Association conference back in October. Netzer is a funny and engaging speaker, unafraid to crack wise and be, unashamedly, herself. Her prose is much the same – quirky, in a non-mainstream/non-Zooey Deschanel way; digestibly weird; and sparse.

The novel tells the story of George and Irene, whose mothers planned their romantic success before George and Irene were born. George, whimsical and in love with the world and all its wonders, believes in things like fate and destiny, while Irene, serious and easily stressed, isn’t so sure there’s anything more than coincidence in the world. As with any love story, there are obstacles: other romantic partners, illness, forbidding parents. But what’s the difference between fate and coincidence, or Toledo and the night sky, if it’s all the same in the end?

There’s no good way to describe How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, as Netzer warned during her keynote speech. If you imagine the stereotype of women’s fiction in terms of style and add some pseudo-fantasy-mythology and maybe a bit of Jodi Picoult, you’d be on your way to Night Sky. The modge podge of elements in the novel isn’t, necessarily, what makes it feel mediocre. In fact, it’s that combination that makes it so ambitious. But I kept waiting for it to all be tied together into some kind of cohesion – and it never came.

Despite this, there’s some kind of enormous achievement in Night Sky. By using these unlikely scenarios, straight-from-the-movies characters, and supernatural elements, Netzer creates a distinct aura of realism that isn’t often present in even most realistic fiction. She articulates the private, imaginary lives we all lead in our own grand ways, publicizing them for George and Irene even while they, along with everyone else, keep their secrets.

It’s this strange conflict of unbelievable realism and mediocrity that challenges me with this book. I left it feeling like I should have liked it, but something kept me from it. Despite some of the absurd events in the book, perhaps the realism was so intense that it did not feel like anything other than real life (which, as we all know, is boring, right?). I’ve sat on reviewing this for a while, hoping I’d have something more specific to say, but I’m still left with nothing, weeks later.

Netzer tries to be profound in Night Sky. She has the language and the concept for it, but there’s something missing in the execution – at least for me. There is a certain kind of profundity about it. It’s there, floating in a cloud-like manner: I can see it, I can even understand it, but I can’t grasp it. And maybe that’s the weirdness of Night Sky, the weirdness of real life.

The enjoyment of Night Sky comes down to how you approach it. If you’ve read this far, you may have already lost. Night Sky is probably something better read with no context at all, not even a title – because isn’t that what life is? An experience without context?

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Modern Library, 2000/1891, 451 pages
Classic Literature

In an effort to read more classics this year, I picked up Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is, perhaps, one of the less well-known classic titles, not on par in popularity with the likes of Pride and Prejudice or Oliver Twist, for example. I’m surprised, however, by its relative lack of fame. Even by modern standards, Tess of the D’Urbervilles makes hearty and fascinating commentary on sexism, image1 (6)double standards, religion, and classism.

After her father drinks himself to a stupor at the news that he may be the descendant of a rich and noble family (the D’Urbervilles), Tess Durbeyfield takes on the responsibility of delivering goods to a town with the family’s horse and her brother. The horse is fatally injured on the journey and, despite her earlier protests, Tess agrees to visit their wealthy, alleged relatives in hopes of securing a husband, some money, or both. She meets her cousin, the roguish Alec D’Urberville, who aggressively attempts to seduce her and ultimately sexually assaults her (although there’s debate on this point, as Tess’s actual consent is unclear). Given that this is Nineteenth Century England, Tess is up a creek when she finds she’s pregnant. In the time following the death of her infant, Tess re-meets the romantic Angel Clare, but soon discovers despite Angel’s carefree way of life, Angel is no angel and expects more of Tess than he does of himself.

The summary I just gave you doesn’t even begin to cover all of the social intricacies that occur in this book. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll be blunt: After going back and forth for months about whether or not to tell Angel about her “impure” state, the two get married. Angel then reveals he’d engaged in premarital sex. Believing she’s now safe in her own confession — because how could Angel believe his sexual history was okay but maintain Tess’s was not, especially as it was seemingly forced upon her — Tess explains her experience with Alec. Angel is not pleased, to say the least. He abandons her for Brazil.

I could go on, as there are certainly more woes to Tess’s story, but I won’t. The point is, this book dares to address THE double standard. For modern literature, this isn’t as big a deal. I haven’t gone into the scholarly literature on TESS yet, but I can only imagine the kind of stuff you’d find in there. While Angel expects “purity” from Tess without believing reciprocation is appropriate, Alec expects forgiveness for the state in which he left Tess. Ultimately, realizing the money will do her good after further series of misfortunes, Tess relents and marries Alec to help ease the burden. Just in time for Angel to return. But Tess still gets the short end of the stick in everything. I’ll let the book show you how rather than explain myself, but, man, it’s a cruel, cruel world.

Commentary on class comes in especially with Alec, who, plenty well-off, is able to run about the countrysides and make poor decisions without real consequences. Tess, however, constantly seems to bear the brunt of consequences from the mistakes of others, such as her father’s drunkenness. Though the horse still might have been killed, driven by a sober Durbeyfield, the fact of the matter was, it wasn’t. And due to the lack of funds available for Tess and her family, she’s forced to go to the D’Urbervilles and her troubles follow from there. Many of her problems are compounded by a lack of money, too, increasing the urgency of poverty.

With religion as a frequent career path for the characters of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it comes up frequently. In general, Hardy discusses whether religion or a lack thereof means a presence of morality. Despite Alec’s past as an uncaring and cruel person, he enters into a religious profession, just to drop it in favor of Tess herself. He remains a terrible person, though perhaps not as bad as readers are made to believe in the beginning, particularly depending on how you define Tess’s vague experience with him.

Like other classics, Hardy writes with complex and beautiful language. There’s a focus on the bucolic. As a dairymaid, Tess has great occasion to be outside and Hardy takes advantage of her situation to describe the rolling English countryside along with Tess’s own natural and unique beauty. It’s a book to be read slowly and digested. Though perhaps slow in action at times, the sheer aesthetics of the novel make it worth trudging through.

A faster turn of events toward the end of the novel make keeping up a bit challenging, especially when the reader is so used to a slower pace. Originally published serially, I imagine there are a number of reasons why this happened the way it did, but it doesn’t detract severely from the book as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend tackling Tess if you don’t plan on trying to stick it out. It’s a rewarding book if you can make it through, but you won’t get anything out of it otherwise. It’s not a book for everyone (and that’s okay!) but if you’re into classics and literature of the denser-but-still-commercial variety, I’d give this one a shot.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Dracula in Love by Karen Essex

Dracula in Love by Karen Essex
Anchor, 2011, 384 pages
Fantasy

Ughhhhh. I can’t believe I’m writing this review. Okay, so here’s the thing – I don’t read a lot of trashy romance novels. And I name them as such with the utmost respect and objectivity. Like, I enjoy plenty of other trashy things, like puns and terrible memes and crappy romantic comedies. Trashy romance novels have never really been my thing, but I’ve always appreciated them as an important piece of human (American?) culture and, yes, feminism. I won’t get into the weeds on why I feel trashy romance novels (TRNs) can be the epitome of feminism. I’m sure there’s plenty of literature on the topic for you to explore and this particular post is not about the intersection of TRNs and feminism. Sorry.

I tell you all this because, when I picked up Dracula in Love, I certainly expected some elements of the TRN, but didn’t really get the sense that was about all it would be. And, yeah, okay, you could make the argument that the book is more than a TRN. In fact, the author’s afterword says as much. Karen Essex took the time to write out this really rather well-done piece on how the book is a critical look at Victorian prudishness and the feminist sexual revolution and such. And, sure, if you read the novel with that in mind and with the intent of finding such content, you could probably pull out a good deal of passages that will agree with that argument. But, let’s face it, like myself, most readers will pick this up for a fun read and never get to the higher-level capital-P Point the author was (apparently) trying to make. The fact that the author tries to impose this meaning (after having done so either poorly or too subtly in the book itself) bothers me.

But also, the book. The book itself. So much of it is a deficient attempt at mimicking Victorian language, culture, and so on (but, yes, still with a feminist twist(?)) and it just goes on. Dracula in Love, despite the title, is not really about Dracula at all. Dracula’s presence isn’t a real force in the book until two-thirds or so through it. The majority of the book follows Mina and Jonathan Harker, both of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina, the woman in which Dracula is supposedly in love with, has her teaching job and her friends (who, frankly, are infinitely more interesting than she is), and her fiancé-turned-husband. But as it turns out, she also has a history which Dracula is all too happy to share with her.

There are simply too many things going on in this novel, particularly as things start to make sense (or, pretend to). Too many relations, too many explanations, too many characters, and, in the overly-flowery pretend-style of Victorian literature, too many words. And maybe that’s part of the point: excess.

It got to the point where I skimmed much of the book. The flailing about and wandering paths away from the central story weren’t enough to keep me engaged. Every turn of the page, I was rolling my eyes.

But, I want to reiterate – if trashy romance novels are your thing, this might be right up your alley. And I hold no judgment there. Again, please, tease me mercilessly for my love of trashy romcoms or Silly Bandz. I don’t mind. But I think I’ll be more careful next time I pick up anything that even resembles the TRN.

❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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