Book Clubbing It

I've fallen behind on book reviewing, partially because I've been doing other stuff but also because I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. According to Goodreads, I'm clocking in at 43 books so far this year, which might be my highest ever total in terms of quantity (though it should be noted that at least a couple are very short, novellas and the like, and even most full novels are in the 300-400 page range). So I'm going to start catching up on reviews in the next few weeks, starting with a trio of books I read for a book club at work. Book clubs represent a funny dynamic, as people tend to flex in and out of the club depending on the chosen book, and it's near impossible to choose a book that everyone will want to read. That being said, I've hit up most of the selected books, and even mentioned a couple of them in previous roundups. Here's some of the more recent picks:
  • The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins - Or: the book only 4 people read. Apparently non-fiction scares the living daylights out of people. In this case, that may have actually served them well, even if I ended up enjoying the book. The problem is that it's a little schizophrenic. Collins can't seem to decide if this is going to be a survey of turn-of-the-century journalism or a lurid true-crime tale of murder, and he thus vacillates between those two poles for most of the book.

    The beginning of the book meanders considerably, with no clear throughline to latch onto. Collins attempts to write evocatively, but the lack of consistent key players in the first third of the book makes it difficult to maintain focus. For example, at one point, Collins writes about a down-on-his-luck detective who'd been assigned out in the boonies and who'd seen this grisly murder as a chance at redemption. Sounds like a solid story right? Well, after being introduced, this guy falls completely in the background. I don't think he's mentioned again. The tabloid wars were mildly interesting, and the steady presence of Pulitzer and Hearst do help stabilize the narrative a bit, but even then, the reality of what happened seems to undercut the rivalry that Collins is trying to portray. Oh, it's there, but it's a bit lopsided (the upstart Hearst was clobbering Pulitzer, and they were both bastards) and there are a bunch of other newspapers involved that don't have such polarizing figures at the head. The role of journalists in that era is still an interesting subject, as they were often just as good at investigating a crime as the police:
    It was not unknown for reporters to tail detectives, for detectives to tail reporters, and for competing reporters and detectives alike to tail one another—anything for a good lead.
    Unfortunately, there aren't enough such insights to really sustain the narrative, which is partly why Collins must fall back on the grisly murder.

    The book doesn't really find its footing until the two main suspects are identified and go to trial. Suddenly the narrative congeals into something that works, and it becomes much more interesting and cohesive. Augusta Nack is a fascinating personage, and the trial that proceeded seems surprisingly familiar to modern scandalous trials. For instance, this notion:
    ...it was the immense popularity over the previous decade of Holmes and Watson, after all, that had nudged the public into expecting some scientific acumen in modern policing.
    This echoes the issues courts are currently dealing with, namely that juries who watch CSI seem to have a much higher standard for evidence than is scientifically possible.

    Anyway, it's during the trial that all the sordid details of the murder and the events leading up to the event become clear, and there's actually a few bombshells that get dropped during the courtroom scenes. The newspaper coverage also fits rather well with the narrative here, as I suspect most of Collins' information came from the papers themselves (as opposed to official sources). I was particularly entertained by the lead defense attorney William "Big Bill" Howe, a seeming giant of a man, wearing ostentatious outfits and theatrically showboating in front of the crowded courtroom. In my head, I was picturing a mix between Johnnie Cochran and Don King.

    So I ultimately came away with a good feeling for this book, even if it took a long time for the narrative to settle down into something I could latch onto. I find it a difficult book to recommend because of how disjointed a lot of it feels, and while Collins has clearly done a good job sifting through the multitude of conflicting information surrounding the murder and the tabloids, I don't think he really nailed the execution. An interesting book and I'm glad I read it, but it certainly has its flaws.
  • Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs - Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular choices for this book club seem to be young adult type stuff, and this is a prime example. The story follows sixteen-year-old Jacob, who sets off to a remote island in England to investigate his grandfather's fanciful tales of a Home for Peculiar Children. He finds the crumbling ruins of a bombed out schoolhouse, but it soon becomes clear that there is more there than meets the eye. The most interesting (and creepy) thing about the book are the photographs that Riggs structures the story around. They're apparently actual photographs that Riggs and company found whilst sifting through shoeboxes and such. Here's one example:
    Check the reflection...
    Check the reflection...
    They're genuinely effective, if a bit extraneous. The story moves at a solid pace, bogging down some at times, but for the most part it's an entertaining piece and there are some really interesting (if not wholly explored) ideas concerning time loops and whatnot. I think I'd be more happy with the book... if it was actually a complete story. Apparently this is the first in a series, and the book ends with quite a cliffhanger, something that I found very disappointing, not the least of which because the second book isn't even out yet. Even if it was, I don't think I was taken enough with the book to really want to delve into the full series. Make of that what you will. It wasn't bad by any stretch, it just didn't really tickle my imagination the way it seems to do for others.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - The most recent entry, which I just finished, is yet another YA book, though I enjoyed this one significantly more than most of the other books I've read for book club. It's certainly not perfect. It withholds certain key information about the main conflict until far too late in the story, and some of the side characters (particularly Bailey) seem tacked on for the sake of plot, but in the end, the book worked entirely too well for those things to bother me too much. The story is focused on two young magicians, pitted against each other in a competition of sorts. The venue for said competition is the titular Night Circus, where each competitor devises a series of fantastical attractions and tents, thus progressing the game. This is not a direct competition, and the two main characters are not allowed to interfere with one another's work, but they are also not told much in the way of rules. The "twist" of the competition seems pretty obvious to me, and the book certainly took its time getting there, but I was taken with the rest of the characters and story that it didn't matter that much. The circus setting is wonderfully evocative, almost a character in itself, and the passion it inspires even in its architects and visitors feels well demonstrated and real. Too often, a story like this would simply tell you how fantastical the various attractions are, but Morgenstern does a good job of establishing the sense of wonder that visitors feel without going overboard or making it seem hollow. As previously mentioned, I'm not entirely sure there needed to be quite so many side characters, and some of them seemed to be included for convenience's sake rather than as a natural growth out of the story. But for the most part, I liked all of the characters, even the extraneous ones, and didn't mind spending time with them, even if it wasn't strictly necessary. The ending might strike some as a bit of a cop out, and I suppose it is, but I thought it worked well enough. It's not a perfect book, but I think Morgenstern earned her indulgences. Of all the book club books I've read so far, this is probably my favorite.
So there you have it. More reviews to come in the next few weeks too, so stay tuned!