Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

LegionLegion by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is outside Brandon Sanderson's comfort zone in a number of ways. It's urban fantasy/science fiction, where most of his other work is epic fantasy. It's a novella, where most of his other works are 500+ pages. The narrator has a mental illness, where none of his other characters would even know what that is. And yet, I wouldn't have guessed any of that if I didn't already know who Sanderson is.

Legion is about Stephen Leeds, who owns a mansion filled with people he's hallucinated. They're all experts of some sort or another, and they have personalities of their own. There's Ivy, his psychiatrist, Tobias, the general expert, J.C., the ex-soldier and gun nut. New aspects appear as he requires new skills, and there's some indication some have gone away, much to his consternation.

People want to study him, but he's having none of it. He does hire out his services, though, and one day receives a photograph that could only have been taken before the invention of the camera. It turns out there's a camera that can take pictures of the past, and it's gone missing. The company that invented it wants to hire him to get it back.

There's a conundrum here: if the aspects aren't real, then Stephen Leeds is a skilled genius. No ordinary human could know everything they do, nor could he know how to do the things the aspects guide him through. But if they're real, where do they come from, and why is he the only one who can see them? For hallucinations, they seem awfully well-realized and distinct, but that could mean he has a vivid imagination, in addition to being a talented genius.

The story is self-contained into this novella, though there are plot threads that could be turned into more stories, should Sanderson wish to revisit this character. I know if he did, I'd be in line to read any stories he might want to put out there.

I enjoyed this novella immensely. It was a quick, fun read. It was very uncharacteristic of Sanderson's usual, which only goes to show he has far more range than I've given him credit for.

View all my reviews

Review: xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

xo Orpheus: Fifty New Mythsxo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths by Kate Bernheimer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of fairy tale and mythology retellings. I generally like to see different people's takes on these familiar tales, and how they might be affected by a modern mindset. So, when I saw this on NetGalley, I grabbed it for review. I was in no way compensated for reviewing this title, and the review copy is formatted to discourage duplication. I think I would be less disappointed if I'd paid money to read this. I wound up forcing myself to get through it so I could offer a fair review.

Of the fifty myths presented in this book, there are several repeats. Odysseus and aspects of his journey take up many of these tales, and Icharus shows up in more than a handful. The most amusing of these is a tale about an octopus who falls in love with the sun, which takes a turn for the surreal.

I know I'd be a lot more forgiving of the repetition if they hadn't been so tedious. With few exceptions, these tales are overwritten, overwrought, and they suck all the fun out of mythology. Some of them aren't stories at all, but long paragraphs about the meanings of mythology or pseudo-philosophical rambling. Many of them drop the reader into a potentially interesting world with no context, only to further confuse before the story is ended. There's little in the way of character development or insight. The authors do that thing I loathe, where characters act because it's what the story says they do.

I do understand that short stories have less room for back story, insight, or navel gazing, but the vast majority of these confounded me. Almost all of them are told in a dispassionate, detached way. The twelfth time I read a story with the exact same tone and literary devices, I started grinding my teeth.

There were a few standouts in the anthology. "Friend Robin" is an interesting way to bring brownies into a modern world, and "Lost Lake" manages to avoid many of the above pitfalls while telling an intriguing version of the Persephone myth. "Betrayal" was probably my favorite of the stories, for its modernization while preserving much of the tone and intent of myths and fairy tales. It's not a happy story, but it held my interest and wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Fifty stories are a lot to wade through to find three I liked, or four that didn't make me impatient to be finished. I cannot recommend buying this book. All I can recommend is skimming its contents to find the stories you might like, and saving yourself the slog through the rest.

View all my reviews

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1) by L. Frank Baum, narrated by Anne Hathaway

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd thought I'd aged out of the Oz books, having never read them when I was younger. But who could I resist a version read aloud by Anne Hathaway? Certainly not me.

The story is much the same as the Judy Garland movie: a girl is carried off in her Kansas farmhouse by a cyclone, and is dropped into the magical land of Oz. Her house crushes the Wicked Witch of the East, who's enslaved the Munchkins. Dorothy inherits the woman's silver shoes, and is sent off by the Good Witch of the North to the City of Emeralds, where the great wizard Oz resides. Along the way, she meets a scarecrow, a tin woodman, and a cowardly lion. Oz refuses their requests (sending Dorothy home, a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man, and courage for the lion) unless they can kill the Wicked Witch of the West. They set off to try, and the witch is stymied in trying to stop them coming for her until she sends the winged monkeys under her command after them. She enslaves Dorothy, who's protected from harm by the Witch of the North's kiss, and refuses to feed the lion until he'll let himself be harnessed like a donkey. But Dorothy sneaks him food. She works for the witch until the witch steals, through trickery, one of the charmed silver shoes. Then, in a rage, she throws water on her, and the witch melts.

But, upon returning to Oz, they learn he's no wizard, and has everyone convinced he is through trickery. He gives the scarecrow, tin man, and lion things that make them think he gave them what they wanted, though all he really gives them is belief in themselves. He hatches a plan to return Dorothy to Kansas in a hot-air balloon, but the balloon leaves without her, because her beloved little dog is barking at a kitten. She and her friends journey to the Good Witch of the South, Glinda, who explains how the silver shoes work, and Dorothy goes home.

The story in the movie is much condensed, and the Wicked Witch of the West plays a greater role in stopping Dorothy from getting to the Emerald City. In this, she doesn't even know they exist until they step onto her lands. The journey to the Emerald City takes longer, and gives the side characters more chances to show that they already have the traits they so wish for.

One major hole in the movie version is that the scarecrow rules over the City of Emeralds after Oz leaves, and each of the other side characters gain their own leadership positions. The lion becomes King of the Beasts by slaying a giant spider, and the tin woodsman goes to lead over the country formerly enslaved by the Wicked Witch of the West. There's a back story for the winged monkeys, who can only be summoned three times by an enchanted cap and are relieved to serve Dorothy, who isn't evil. The world is better fleshed out in the book, with a lot more of the countryside described and populated. And Dorothy, herself, is much younger than in the movie. After reading the book, it becomes much clearer how there were so many sequels.

I hadn't realized before how much
  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

was derived from this book. A lot of the whimsical elements Valente employs or reacts to are present in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the tone is remarkably similar. It was a strong influence, clearly. And, while Dorothy tends to stumble into solutions and lean on her friends, she's also brave, capable, and determined. It's her kindness that makes people so willing to serve as her allies. Valente's September owes a lot of her characterization to Dorothy.

Baum writes in his introduction that he intended this story as pure entertainment, and not to impart a moral lesson, as previous children's books do. I don't know if that was supposed to be ironic; the book contains a lot of moral lessons. Within this book are lessons about kindness, the burden of lies, believing in oneself, differences as a benefit, friendship, and family.

Anne Hathaway narrated the version I listened to on audio, and she's a delightful narrator. Her reading was warm, full of humor and good cheer. Though this is a children's book, she didn't read it like she was reading to a child. She had a great range of accents for characters that differentiated them all. It was a quick, pleasant listen, in all.

View all my reviews

Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, narrated by Tim Curry

A Christmas Carol: An Original PerformanceA Christmas Carol: An Original Performance by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I've mentioned, I'm no fan of Charles Dickens. But, when I ran across this edition, narrated by Tim Curry, on Audible, I couldn't resist. I honestly don't know if it's the performance or the narration, but I did enjoy it much more than the last time I read it.

Surely you know the story: Ebenezer Scrooge is stingy and hates Christmas, until the Christmas Eve he's visited by the ghost of his business partner, then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. He's transformed overnight, and becomes the very picture of generosity.

In previous readings, as well as when I watched adaptations of the story, I often wondered if the three ghosts were overkill. Scrooge alters his notions starting with the first ghost. But, the text makes it clear that, without the fear of his impending death, he lacks conviction. Lifetime habits are difficult to break, and it takes more than the realization of how he got to be so stingy, and seeing the impact of his greed on others, to make him vow to change his ways.

The trouble with the approach is that it makes the moral a little easier for modern readers to shrug off. Scrooge's notions are still held by those in the upper-middle classes and above. Perhaps they're not as drastic, but they're no less damaging. But a modern reader who echoes Scrooge's early sentiments can rest assured they won't suffer the fate he so fears. After all, they have families and friends, and Scrooge refuses these. So long as one goes through the motions, then, one can avoid the fate Scrooge so fears. It rather misses the point, but there's wiggle room.

One of the interesting things I noticed about the text is that Scrooge doesn't pass Christmas dinner with the Cratchits, as many movie and play adaptations have him doing. I know why modern adaptations make the change; it's a better illustration of the change that's come over him, and it allows for the iconic line: "And God bless us, every one!" Knowing a few things about Victorian social mores, though, it also makes sense why Dickens didn't end this tale that way.

Tim Curry was an excellent reader for this tale. He has such a range,  I kept forgetting it was one person reading all of the dialogue. He reads with enthusiasm, and sometimes reads in ways that evoke his other roles. He depicts the story excellently, reading in a gravelly, hushed tone through the dark and sinister parts, and allowing for more lightheartedness when the story calls for it. It was a pleasure to listen to his narration, though I can't be sure if I enjoyed the book more because I'm older and more familiar with Victorian literature, or entirely thanks to Mr. Curry's narration.

Either way, if you like this story, I highly recommend you pick up this audio version.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens

The Cricket on the HearthThe Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of Charles Dickens. The last time I had to read one of his books for school, I literally fell asleep reading it. But this book was free from Audible, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

This is the tale of the Perrybingle family, and a toymaker named Tackleton. John Peerybingle is a mail carrier, and makes a comfortable living at it. His wife, Dot, is much younger, and has recently had a child. Tackleton, meanwhile, likes to build toys that will frighten children. He has an assistant named Caleb, who has a blind daughter named Bertha. Tackleton is engaged to a young woman the same age as Mrs. Peerybingle, who doesn't love him but accepted the engagement out of a sense of duty.

One chilly evening, Mr. Peerybingle returns from picking up a delivery with a guest, an old man who's hard of hearing. His wife acts oddly around the stranger, which confuses Mr. Peerybingle until he sees the man speaking with Dot, undisguised. He's actually a younger man, about the same age as Mrs. Peerybingle. John withdraws from his wife, spending all night thinking about the future of their marriage. The cricket on the hearth, who's actually a fairy devoted to the home's well-being, shows Mr. Peerybingle scenes of his wife's devotion and kindness, and he concludes the right thing to do is to release her from their marriage and send her home to live with her mother. But all is cleared up the next day, when it's revealed that the disguised man was there to see May Fielding, Tackleton's fiancée who was promised to the young man before he was sent overseas. They've been married in secret.

Tackleton is so impressed by Mr. Peerybingle's selflessness in his reaction to his wife's seeming infidelity, he changes his ways, at least enough to send his wedding cake to his former fiancée and her new husband, and joins their celebration with no bitterness. He vows to stop building frightening toys.

There's another subplot about Bertha's view having been colored by her father's sugar-coated descriptions. He has to clear up her illusions, for which she loves her father all the more for lending her a sunnier view.

This has many of the same themes and elements of Dickens' more well-known A Christmas Carol, though I found it lighter in tone. There were actually points in the narrative where I laughed. I'd underestimated Dickens' capacity for irony and satire. The sudden transformation of a grump, the supernatural elements standing in for bellybutton inspection, and an inspirational character with a disability are all there.

It's unclear who's telling the story, though it's told from a first-person point of view by none of the named characters. I believe it's supposed to be one of the house fairies. That lends to the whimsical air of the story.

I wish I'd known Dickens wrote lighter fare. They seem a much less intimidating introduction to the man and his works.

This book was a free gift from Audible, read by the delightful Jim Dale. It wasn't a chore to get through at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

Review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Macbeth way back in high school, and the plot's fairly well-known in popular culture. But, when I saw there was a performance by LA Theatre Works, with James Marsters in the title role, I had to pick it up. Once, not so long ago, I was at a convention, and an audience member asked Mr. Marsters for some Shakespeare dialogue. And he recited, word for word, the "Is this a dagger?" speech from this play. It was amazing.

Macbeth is about a Scottish general who's told a prophecy that he'll first get a title he thinks is well out of reach, then he'll be king. But his friend's bloodline is the one that'll stay on the throne. When the first part comes true, his wife connives to have him murder the king to speed up the prophecy. He then has his friend murdered, and tries to have his kids killed, too. He becomes paranoid, and goes to find the witches again. They tell him a series of impossible events that'll come to pass before he's deposed, and his confidence grows. But then the events start happening, and he refuses to back down, even when fighting a man who seems to fit the witches' description.

It's a story about greed, power, guilt, and ghosts, and contains a lot of elements of the histories and other tragedies. Thanks to the great emotional anguish required of the actors, it has some vied-after roles, though it's also rumored to be cursed. (My English teacher's theory was that people would usually put on "The Scottish Play" as a revenue-boosting move, and, if a theatre needed money badly, they'd've let the sets deteriorate significantly until that point.)

Luckily, this audiobook troupe is well up to the challenge, and they employed a number of sound effects to make up for the lack of visuals.

Shakespeare wrote his plays to be acted on a stage. If one must read them, I feel an audio performance is the closest one can get to the intended experience. It's certainly more dynamic than words on a page. And, I think, hearing the words spoken aloud, with the right inflection, makes up for a lot of the shift in language since the Elizabathan era.

View all my reviews

Reading Challenge: 2014 TBR Pile

I succeeded at my 2013 TBR challenge. Not only that, I read 12 books that had been languishing on my shelves, unread, for years.

I have many more that are waiting to be read, though, so I'm also signing up for the 2014 challenge. The rules are, you can add any book you physically own, and have had for longer than a year. As you finish, link up your reviews, and post about them on Roof Beam Reader, where the challenge is hosted. Winners qualify for a prize drawing.

My list for 2014, in alphabetical order by author:
  1. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
  2. The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle
  3. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  4. The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint
  5. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
  6. Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge
  7. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer
  8. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  9. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
  10. The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  11. If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
  12. Blackout by Connie Willis
My two backups are:
  1. Lisey's Story by Stephen King
  2. Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin
I'm looking forward to reading these. I leaned heavily on books people gave me as gifts, either because I asked for them or because they thought I'd like them. I'm looking forward to finding out if they were right.

Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the ShoreKafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have no idea whether I liked or hated this book. I had a visceral reaction to a lot of the elements within it, though I recognize the craft and melding of cultures that went into its production.

The story is about a fifteen-year-old boy in Japan who runs away from home. He spends most of his time in a library, staffed by a young man named Oshima, and owned by Miss Saeki. Meanwhile, Satoru Nakata, who talks to cats, kills a man calling himself Johnny Walker, who's been killing cats and eating their hearts. He, too, flees to where the boy has gone, fulfilling a quest that will restore his soul to what it once was.

The book has many dream-like elements. Considering how much time Nakata spends asleep, I was ready to believe most of Kafka's happenings were dreamt by Nakata. But, these events occur even when Nakata is awake.

It's also packed full of literary references. The boy calls himself Kafka, and the story certainly contains a lot of the surreality that author is known for. He and Oshima discuss several Japanese authors and poets. The book even seems, at times, to be a reaction to a book Kafka openly admires, contradicting the premise he praises. Kafka has also been cursed to reenact Oedipus's story, though he escapes his final fate, luckily.

Yes, that means that he sleeps with his mother. He also rapes his adopted sister. Even if it only happens in a dream, he chooses to go ahead with it even when she calls it what it is. It's as pleasant to read as you can imagine.

The book also has underpinnings in classical music and philosophy. Oshima likes to listen to a flawed piece, to see how various performers make up for it. Hoshino, who takes Nakata where he needs to go, gains an appreciation for classical music in his wanderings. As for philosophy, Oshima can't seem to speak more than three sentences without bringing up a philosophical debate.

Oshima, himself, is a fascinating character. He helps guide Kafka, and hides him from a police search. He seems wise beyond his years, and remarkably unruffled. Nothing Kafka tells him seems to surprise Oshima. But then, Oshima has hidden depths of his own. I thought that aspect was handled well, for the most part, though I would've liked to have seen it revealed without having to introduce straw feminists into the plot. I was frustrated beyond words by the assertion that men coming before women is as immutable as the order of the alphabet, and outright enraged by the statement that having no separate ladies' room isn't a problem because no one has complained. (If the library only had one bathroom in all, I rescind my outrage. But the woman who brings it up has a point that it can make women feel threatened, especially if the bathrooms are in a tucked-away corner of the library.) The eventual dismissal of all of the woman's points is inevitable, but no less irritating.

For all the book's unfathomable depth, though, the pacing could drive a person up the wall. Conversations only serve to further confuse the point. Often half of the dialogue was taken up with another character rephrasing what the first said, prefaced with, "So you're saying . . ." If these clarified anything, they would've been far less frustrating. But they mostly served to distract from the aspects of the conversation that might've illuminated the reader.

Reading Kafka on the Shore is like eating a series of increasingly disgusting insects, prepared and seasoned to taste like one's favorite dishes. It takes a lot of skill to pull off, but it's difficult to avoid that "blech" reflex. Don't expect a neat ending with all questions answered. The basic plot is wrapped up, but many of the mysteries are left as they are.

I listened to this book on audio. It's about 30 hours of listening in all, which is a big chunk of time. But the story is read by several narrators, which helps to differentiate the sections and perspectives. The British accents and pronunciations took some getting used to, but it did serve as a constant reminder that this is not an American novel.

View all my reviews

Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the twelfth and final book in my 2013 TBR Challenge, and I'm proud to have completed the challenge in plenty of time. As I still have lots more books that I haven't read, I'll be participating in 2014, as well.

I'd been putting off The Road because Cormac McCarthy isn't known for his bright, cheery writing. When I've spoken to people who've read this, the most frequent descriptors are "depressing," "dark," and "pointless." It's certainly those two former, but I disagree about the latter. There is a point, but it's not the point one might expect.

In a post-apocalyptic landscape, a father and his young son walk what remains of an old highway, seeking warmer climes. They scavenge what they can along the way, but other survivors have beaten them to most of it. The boy wants to trust and help others, but the father explains, time and time again, that others are bad guys who want to hurt them, and shows little mercy. Whether he's right or wrong, we never learn.

The prose is extraordinarily spare, skipping even many apostrophes, and all quotation marks. It makes it hard to follow conversations, sometimes, especially because all the rest of the book goes along at a nice clip. For all its bleak outlook, the book is a quick, easy read. Though, if you're not paying attention, you may stumble over some of the language. Big, seldom-used words are sprinkled throughout.

While the story is bare-bones, where it works is as an extended metaphor. The father has a plan for himself and his son. He refuses to deviate from it, often to their detriment. He tells his son to be good-hearted and generous, but his own actions are deeply suspicious, and he defaults to violence. He sets up the notion of "good guys" and "bad guys," then defines them so narrowly that all strangers are suspect. It's only when the son is allowed to decide that he's saved from his father's path to destruction. Certainly the above could apply to a lot of children of bigoted, hateful, myopic parents.

The book serves as a character study of the father. The apocalyptic aspect, little-explored as it is, mostly serves to strip away distractions so the father's true nature comes to the forefront. He's blinded by the love of his son, who's all he has left of a world he hasn't entirely let go of. The cold, ashy landscape is all the son has ever known, though, and the father's attempts to shield the boy's innocence are simultaneously depressing and touching.

Overall, I found The Road to be neither as pointless and boring as I'd feared, nor was it worth the hype. But then, few books are.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That HappenedHyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't think I'd be able to review this book until next year, at the earliest. But a friend bought me some things off my Amazon wish list, and this was one of the things she sent me. As soon as I got over my astonishment and delight, I dug in.

The book's tone and content will be no surprise to Hyperbole and a Half readers. As with The Bloggess's book, this reuses some of the content of the blog. Though, having it in a full-color volume you can lend your friends is a definite plus, whereas with Jenny's book people might've been more irritated that you were making them read.

Allie Brosh has been open about her struggles with depression, and a chunk of the book is taken up by her famous posts about it. The book is far from depressing, though; she puts a creative spin on mental illness, explaining it in a way that both encapsulates the experience, and makes you laugh.

Another portion of the book is about her dogs. One of them is so stupid it's mind-boggling, while the other has no problems taking advantage of it, though she has neuroses of her own. The story of her cross-country move was on the blog, but she adds several anecdotes we haven't heard yet.

Another portion of the book is her strange childhood. I recognized the stories about dental surgery and a birthday party, her grandfather's cake, and about a dinosaur Halloween costume. Again, there are several new stories, as well.

Anyone wanting to read about what happened to the goose that got into her apartment will definitely want to pick this up. It's as hilarious as you imagined.

Overall, I think the book was 2/3rds stories that were already published on her blog, and a third new content. The stories aren't organized in any particular order, and the book isn't much of a cohesive whole. I was disappointed that the alot didn't make it in. But, it is vastly entertaining, and an excellent way to show your family and friends why you so enjoy a blog full of badly illustrated stories.

I am immensely grateful to my friend for getting me this as an early Christmas gift.

View all my reviews

Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not what I was expecting from Max Barry. When I requested this book off NetGalley, I expected some humor, quirky characters, some social commentary. But Barry has stepped up his game since Jennifer Government, and I was taken completely off-guard by the story I read.

The premise behind Lexicon is that language controls people. This goes beyond advertising buzzwords and political correctness, though it does reference those as being a watered-down version of this science. In this book, once you've been clearly identified as one of 208 distinct personality types, speaking a few nonsense words can hack into your conscious actions, and force you to do things you normally wouldn't.

Those who wield this weapon are called Poets, and they're named after famous deceased ones. They're trained at a highly competitive school, where students are discouraged from forming emotional attachments with one another, and everything they do is a test. It's not just to see if they're cut out for this world, though; it's just as much to pin down their personality types, so they can be brought in line.

Into this world comes Emily Ruff, a homeless grifter getting by on "Find the lady" scams. She's identified as a potential Poet, and brought into their school. Her ways are unorthodox, but she soon proves to be one of the strongest, and earns the suitably impressive code name of Virginia Woolf.

Meanwhile, Wil Parke is assaulted in an airport bathroom by men asking him what his favorite color is, whether he's a cat or a dog person, whether he gets along with his family, and why he did it. Wil's bafflement is our bafflement, because we don't have any of the above context for why this matters yet. Soon, he's dodging attempts on his life by his own girlfriend, getting shot at, and fleeing across the country with a man called Eliot.

Gradually, it becomes clear that this is a nonlinear narrative, and Emily's story is the context Wil lacks. Just in time for the reader to start rooting for Emily, the narrative threads meet.

If you think a book about the power of words sounds boring, think again. The explanations about this science are never longer than a paragraph or two, and often framed by a character who needs to know. The action surrounding the explanations is edge-of-your-seat stuff. I flew through the book, desperate both to know more about the Poets, and about what happens to Wil and Emily.

There's room for a sequel at the end of Lexicon, and yet I felt it was wrapped up nicely. Should Barry deign to write a sequel, I'll snatch it up, though I honestly don't know if he could do better than Lexicon. I don't know if any writer alive could.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley, with the agreement I would review it, and no further compensation. As the formatting was often wonky in the review copy, I will be picking up my own copy of this book. It has a high rereadability value.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman and Skottie Young

Fortunately, the MilkFortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up as a Christmas present for one of my five nephews. But, having heard Neil Gaiman read an excerpt when he visited Saratoga Springs, I had to read the rest of it for myself, first.

Fortunately, the Milk is a tall tale in the classic sense, full of improbable coincidences and hilarious characters. It starts off as an absentminded father looking after his two kids, and forgetting to buy milk. When he does go to get it, he takes a long time coming back, and has a very creative story to explain what took so long. First he's kidnapped by aliens who want to redecorate the Earth, but he escapes through the time-space continuum and winds up with pirates, and is then rescued by a time-traveling stegosaurus. Then it gets really silly.

Even if you believe, as the kids in the story do, that it's all made up, it's still a fun story, full of twists and turns and unexpected resolutions. It's stuffed with plays on words and understated British humor, and the story made me laugh out loud more than once. It could be read either as the father making up a ridiculous story to distract the children from his irresponsibility, or it could be taken at face value. Either way, it's an enjoyable read.

The illustrations are fitting to the chaos of the story, and they lend credence to the father's tale. Skottie Young is a talented illustrator, and he seems inspired by the silliness, his drawings getting more detailed the more complicated the story gets.

It's too bad the nephew getting this as a present lives so far away. I'd love to see my sister's reaction when she first reads it aloud to him.

View all my reviews

Review: The Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell

Gallows ThiefGallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but, when I do, it's almost always Bernard Cornwell's. I like the level of texture he gives his places and times, and how real he makes them feel. For all I know, his descriptions may not be entirely accurate, but they don't feel like a pale reflection of modern times, pining for better technology or updated attitudes.

Gallows Thief is a standalone novel, though it could easily have lent itself to sequels. It takes place after the Napoleonic wars, in London. Rider Sandman is a former soldier, a cricket player, and, thanks to his father's money trouble, broke. He's commissioned to erase all doubts about a man, scheduled for execution in a week, being the true murderer. Instead, he unearths the real killer.

Rider is a man's man: he prides himself on his status as a soldier, to the point where he berates a beggar claiming to have served at Waterloo. He gains information from one source by dangling details from the battle just out of the man's reach. He twists his ankle escaping a would-be assassin, and continues to walk on it. He's also a gentleman. He calls off his engagement to the woman he loves because he can't provide for her, and is gallant and protective of an actress he befriends. He refuses to step down from the investigation when it becomes clear the man accused is innocent, even when he's offered enough money to pay all of his father's debts. He impresses a guard at his enemy's employ so much, the man allies with him.

There are only two major female characters, but they both prove useful, in their own ways. Sally Hood is an actress who lives at the same inn as Rider, and she helps directly with the investigation. Eleanor is Rider's ex-fiancée, and her insight proves invaluable to the case.

The title refers not to those who would rob dead men after hanging, but to the act of "stealing" from the hangman, as if the executioner misses out by not killing an innocent person. It did happen in the time period covered in the novel. I imagine it would happen much the way it does in this book, too, with an investigation relying on tracking down witnesses who never gave evidence at the trial. Cornwell has just devised a creative reason why the key witness disappeared.

Overall, I enjoyed this murder mystery set in the early 1800s. It was a solid, plausible story, with no glaring anachronisms to distract the reader. Rider never employs primitive forensic techniques or wishes for a device to determine whose blood was spilled where; he works with what he has to the best of his ability as an untrained investigator.

I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator was a good choice for the book. He has a deep-voiced, arch delivery that suits the character well. There were times when he raises his voice because the characters are yelling, and I had to quickly turn the volume down, lest it blow out my eardrums. Otherwise, though, his narration was excellent.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made WorldThe Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the December book for my SF book club. I might not have gotten around to it if it hadn't been. I know I wouldn't have finished it.

The Half-Made World is Western Steampunk in a world nothing like ours. As the title indicates, the world isn't even fully formed. There are two major forces battling it out for the a recently formed portion. Into this mix comes Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist who just wants to make people better. She's come to the edge of the world to treat people hit by weapons devised by the Line, the dominant force taking over the world by building railroads to traverse it. She's kidnapped by John Creedmore, an agent of the Gun, the chaotic faction opposing the Line. She's not the main target, though. Her patient, who served as a General in a third force that was wiped out, is Creedmore's goal. The senseless old man has the secret of some weapon locked away inside his mind.

A lot of the narrative is spent on travel, and the destination isn't always clear. I felt the strongest part of the narrative is when the characters settle down in a place, even if just temporarily. When they're traveling, the narrative meanders, seemingly going nowhere. I found myself wishing those long passages had been summarized. The descriptions are creative and unique, but I didn't feel they justified the narrative space. The book made me impatient.

It didn't help that I felt no connection to the characters. I liked Liv, and any time when she affected the narrative was a high point. Unfortunately, that wasn't often. She spent most of the book being dragged around by one force or another.

Creedmore, though, is your typical swaggering antihero found in Westerns. He's careless with human lives, selfish, sleeps around, and is often just as compelled as Liv. He resists Marmion, the entity that gives him his power, but he refuses to let go of it. For all his swaggering, he's just the Gun's pawn.

Lowry is a Linesman who's also assigned with unlocking the secrets inside the General's mind, and he's just as helpless as the rest to affect the narrative. He has the Engines to order him around, and they enforce strict discipline. Failure isn't tolerated, much less even thinking about rebellion.

I might've forgiven the book's pace if I'd felt a sense of closure at the end. Instead, it sets up the next book, without ever resolving the question of what the General knew.

There are those who like the plodding narratives, the antiheroes everyone loves to hate, and not knowing whether the author even knows where they're going. I'm not one of them, though there are clearly plenty. This book is popular and well-liked.

And so, I conclude that this book simply wasn't to my taste. It wasn't poorly written, it just failed to engage me.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

She Stoops to ConquerShe Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to an audio performance of this play, knowing very little about it or the author going in. It was a pleasant surprise. She Stoops to Conquer has aged well, and, I feel, should be studied alongside Austen.

The play predates Austen by about 30 years, but it fills in a lot of the gaps in Austen's work. She rarely acknowledges servants or employees of any kind, while this play highlights, if not the people themselves, how the gentry treated them.

Marlow is a painfully shy young man, off to meet Kate Hardcastle, the girl his father hopes he'll marry. He's accompanied by his friend Hastings, who's in love with Constance Neville, a ward of the Hardcastle family. On their way to the house, Marlow and Hastings get lost, and Tony, the stepson of Mr. Hardcastle, tells them the house is really an inn. Marlow is much more comfortable talking to servants and barmaids, but his behavior is baffling to Mr. Hardcastle. It allows Kate to see another side of her suitor, though, and she keeps up the pretense to draw him out.

Marlow's behavior toward the Hardcastle family is truly appalling, but all is forgiven when the mistake is uncovered. It goes to show how differently servants were treated in so-called polite society. Anyone who wants to resurrect the Napoleonic attitudes needs to realize the vast majority of us are people who work for a living, and are therefore subject to being treated like we're subhuman. The scandals in Austen's work where people fall in love with those below their station is much more easily understood, in this context.

Marlow, who's considered the very model of a gentleman, tries to proposition Kate as a prostitute, and is confused to be rebuffed. Her distance and objections are seen as flirtation, and he assumes she can't possibly mean "no" when she says it. It simply doesn't occur to him that a simple barmaid wouldn't want to sleep around.

L.A. Theatre Works, who recorded this production, includes the sounds of an audience. Though the audience often found remarks uproarious, I found very little to laugh about in this play. It's sharply satirical, and a comedy in the classical sense, in that nobody dies and there's a happily ever after. But, I found the play more eye-opening than funny. Maybe if I were more familiar with the context, as audiences of the time would've been, I would've laughed more.

The performance was a good one. It sounded like a stage production, well-acted by professionals. The inclusion of James Marsters in the cast certainly added to my decision to pick this up, but the others were also excellent.

View all my reviews

Review: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only reason I picked this up was because it was narrated by Colin Firth, one of my favorite actors. I figured, even if I hated it, I'd get to listen to Mr. Firth for a few hours. And I was prepared to hate it; it had many of the trappings I tend to avoid.

I didn't hate it, and not just because of the narrator. I found it a surprisingly tender and touching story, one that managed to resonate with me.

Maurice Bendrix is a writer, and he's had a touch of writer's block since the married woman he was having an affair with cut things off without explanation, following a bomb falling very near his flat. (The story takes place during and immediately following WWII.) He bumps into her husband by pure chance some time later, who confesses he believes Sarah is cheating on him. Bendrix feels jealous all over again, and hires a private investigator to follow her. All evidence supports her taking up with an atheist evangelist named Smythe, until he reads her diary.

The book gets into a lot of philosophical questions about religion, love, and writing. Bendrix bemoans the difficulty of writing while depressed, and, though I have little sympathy for a guy who doesn't need a day job and can write full-time, I knew what he meant. Sarah, meanwhile, feels a pull toward the Catholic faith, and ascribes many events to godly intervention. And in the middle of all this is Bendrix's jealousy, contrasted with Sarah's faith.

It would've been easy to write this book to turn Sarah into a villain. She's a married woman having an affair, and refuses to leave her husband. As the story goes on, though, she becomes increasingly sympathetic. Neither is the husband the bad guy; he's merely clueless and a bit self-absorbed. If there's any antagonist in this book, it's the god the atheist Bendrix winds up railing against. Either that, or Bendrix himself. His jealousy certainly works against his self-interest, and he projects his beliefs and values onto Sarah, as if he can shape her in his image by thinking it hard enough. She remains staunchly independent, though, and chooses the exact opposite of what he wants at every turn.

Sometimes, what we need is the last thing we want.

I suspect a lot of modern literary fiction is trying to tap into this book's qualities when they reuse the cheating plot. Apparently, to find a version I liked, I had to go back to the source.

The narration was rather enjoyable, and I only wish Colin Firth did this for more books. I imagine it's a large time commitment, though, with little payoff. I don't know if I would've had as favorable an opinion of this book if I hadn't listened to this version. I'll never know, and I'm fine with that.

View all my reviews

Review: Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex

Chu's DayChu's Day by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this to evaluate whether I wanted to give it to one of my five nephews for Christmas, and which one. I found it a cute story, one my sister might actually enjoy reading aloud.

Like most picture books, the story is simple: Chu is a panda, out doing fun things. At each place where he stops, he starts to sneeze, and his parents brace themselves. But it doesn't happen. Then, at the very end, he finally does sneeze, and it brings chaos to all of the places he visited earlier in the day.

The text is minimal, and there's a handful of pages that lack words entirely. This would give a child reading it along with a parent a better chance to engage in the story, as they could narrate what they see on the page.

The illustrations are vivid and nicely done. The book is eye-catching, and I can see it becoming a favorite among those who've read it.

I will be picking this up for one of my nephews. Even if my sister doesn't like reading it aloud, I will.

View all my reviews

Review: The Song of the Quarkbeast (Chronicles of Kazam #2) by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the Quarkbeast (The Chronicles of Kazam, #2)The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Jasper Fforde YA series about a teenage orphan who runs an agency of magicians and seers. This could easily be picked up without reading the first book, I think, but you'd miss out on the better of the two.

In the first book, Jennifer Strange, foundling, fulfills a prophecy to become the last dragonslayer. In this one, she's tasked with saving the agency she works for. Or, at least, not giving her rival an unfair advantage. The king is attempting to give a political position to the corrupt head of iMagic. In trying to stop it, Jennifer agrees to a magical battle between iMagic and Kazam, one she feels they should win handily. She didn't count on the measures the king would take to make sure iMagic wins.

We find out more about how magic works, and where some of the odd spells around the Kazam headquarters came from. We also meet The Great Zambini, who ran Kazam until his mysterious disappearance. Jennifer is about to pin down where he'll next temporarily materialize, and consults with him on solving the magical problem.

There's more going on in the background, and we learn more about The Mighty Shandar, the most powerful wizard in history who had caused all the trouble with dragons in the last book. It's background, but the series seems to be leading up to a confrontation that has something to do with him.

I don't know if it was that the shine of the new and creative had worn off, or if it was just different, reading it instead of listening on audio. I didn't dislike this book, but it didn't impress me as much as the first. There's always the danger of humor, that stakes are deflated for the sake of a punchline, but I don't think that's entirely to blame. Fforde has written a lot of hilarious books that felt deadly serious, nonetheless.

I hope it's a temporary bump, and not a pattern for the series. Regardless, I will be anticipating the next book to see for myself. Even at his worst, Fforde writes thoroughly enjoyable books.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris #1) by Jim Hines

Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris, #1)Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like Jim Hines as a person. Not because I've met him, but he seems affable enough from what I've read of his blog and twitter. I like a lot of what he has to say, which is why I seek out his books to read. Luckily, he is also a creative and entertaining writer. I hate it when I have to pretend to like someone's books just because I like the person. None of that for Mr. Hines.

Libriomancer is Hines's foray into urban fantasy, after his two light epic fantasy series. Urban fantasy risks oversaturation, at this point, because so many aspects of it have been done. So far, though, I haven't seen an urban fantasy world with book-based magic set in Michigan's upper peninsula. That's new.

Our hero, Isaac Vanio, was taken off field duty and thrown into a cataloging position at a library. He pretends to be a real librarian, but was issued equipment by his real employer to inventory newly published books as they come in. Isaac has the ability to reach into books to materialize anything in its pages. The object has to be able to fit through an area the size of the book, and it can't be from a book that was locked away for humanity's protection. (Time travel devices, for instance, are strictly forbidden, and Hines uses this to explain why the Time Turner vanished from the later Harry Potter books.)

On a day like any other, Isaac is set upon by sparkling vampires, and dragged into a mystery about who killed his mentor, and several other libriomancers. Evidence points to the founder of libriomancy, but Isaac is unwilling to accept the easy answer.

Isaac is helped in his quest by Lena Greenwood, a dryad. Magical creatures like her are unwelcome in the society governing Isaac's magic, but she doesn't hold that against Isaac. She sought him out as her mate, because her nature is to obey her lover's wishes, and her previous love may have been compromised by vampires. Isaac nobly refrains from taking advantage, though he is tempted. Lena is just his type, and only uncertainty about Lena's free will holds him back.

Despite his wise choice in this arena, Isaac isn't always likable. He has a tendency toward smugness, and his desire to do things his own way gets him in trouble more than once.

While Isaac doesn't turn out to be the most powerful libriomancer, ever, or anything, he does get a power boost within this book. Some of the rules seem to be established just to let Isaac break them. It can be hard to follow, though it does keep the story from becoming predictable.

In the end, I found this a light, enjoyable read, with plenty of surprises throughout. Even if the story had been mediocre, and it wasn't, I'd have to give it kudos for how it handled the love triangle. There's plenty of potential for complications in future books, but that's the first time I've seen that resolution in a traditionally published book.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Brian Eslik. He had the geeky voice down for Isaac, and his accents were good. He had a nice range of other voices to fall back on. Though, there were times when Isaac came across as whinier than I think he was written, because of the delivery. Also, his pronunciation of "automaton" drove me up a wall. Otherwise, though, his reading was good. If I ever pick up a print copy of the book, I'm sure I'll hear the narrator in his voice.

View all my reviews

Review: Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon

Boy's LifeBoy's Life by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eleventh of twelve books I pledged to read in 2013, because it had been on my shelf for far too long. I have no reason for putting this book off as long as I did, except that it just wasn't a priority. Once again, I find myself grateful for the excuse to have bumped it up in my to-read queue.

The story is told by Cory Mackenson, an adult looking back on his twelfth year growing up in Zephyr, Alabama. He muses about the magic of childhood, which, in this book, isn't entirely metaphorical. The happenings of that summer can only be fully explained by the existence of supernatural phenomena.

The seed of the story is a murder mystery. Cory and his father are delivering milk one cool spring morning when they see a car go off a cliff into the town's deep, dark lake. Cory's father jumps in to rescue the driver, but finds the stranger is already dead, and handcuffed to the wheel. The memory of it comes to haunt Tom Mackenson.

But the story, really, is about the fictional town of Zephyr, its residents, and the changes sweeping through it. Some are good changes: the local source of most crime is stopped, and a museum dedicated to the history of slavery opens in the town, while racism is confronted and reduced. Some are neutral: the supermarket that opens is convenient for Zephyr's residents, though it also makes Cory's father's job obsolete, and the Mackenson family struggles with finances. Some are bad: the town discovers it's been harboring a murderer, a flood damages much of the poor (and, not coincidentally, black) part of town, and local members of the KKK make their presence known.

Cory starts out his year believing in magic. He collects tokens for their magical value, and wholeheartedly believes in the mystical power of The Lady, a black woman with some spiritual influence in town. He describes his first day of summer with his friends as their wings bursting forth, and relates an impossible story of soaring through the sky. He also encounters a prehistoric beast who occupies the river, and receives heaps of scorn when he tells his more cynical friends how he thwarted it.

The magical elements are there throughout, but Cory believes in them less and less as the story goes on. Toward the end of the book, he's justifying, hedging, and explaining why something might appear to be magic, but it isn't. He never disbelieves entirely, but it's easy to see it's wearing off as young Cory is forced to grow up.

Within the book, there's a reference to another murder mystery, written by the local eccentric, Vernon Thaxter. Cory's mother has read it, and remarks that the mystery seems tacked on. Cory later finds out that the mystery was tacked on. Vernon was pressured by his editor to make the story exciting, when all he wanted to do was pay homage to his lovely hometown. It's both a parallel and a contrast to Boy's Life, itself. The magic and mystery are blended nicely into the small-town anecdotes in this book. It also works on a meta level to explain why Robert R. McCammon chose this setting for his story.

The book contains several Bradbury-esque elements, too. The fall carnival seems a direct homage to Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the tone of Boy's Life is often similar to Dandelion Wine. There's also the quiet menace of some of Bradbury's creepier short stories. McCammon makes it clear that this, too, is no accident, when Cory gets a short story collection by Bradbury as a gift. McCammon lists several more inspirations at the back of the book, but Bradbury seemed the strongest one, to me.

Though Zephyr is a fun and fascinating place to visit, though, sometimes the chapters seemed too anecdotal. There were times when it seemed more like a series of short stories set in the fictional Alabama small town than a coherent narrative. The last few chapters dispel that notion, but it did make it difficult to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I had an easy time setting it aside.

When I picked up Boy's Life, I had fretted that other readers' enjoyment of this book stemmed from the nostalgia factor. While a love of the time period may well enhance one's enjoyment of this book, it stands well on its own merit. Provided you like stories that unfold slowly and subtly, I recommend you give this one a try. Of the McCammon books I've read so far, it's the least scary.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Notes from the UndergroundNotes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect I'd get a lot more out of reading this book if I knew more about philosophy. I'm only vaguely familiar with existentialism, of which this book is considered a forerunner. While the first half of the book is very heavily grounded in philosophy, that part is only leading up to the story encapsulating the narrator's life.

Oddly, I found the first half of this book easier to understand than the narrative section. In the first half, the narrator, who identifies himself only as Underground Man (though we're probably supposed to recognize him in some Dostoyevsky contemporary), expounds on human nature, happiness, assumptions, logic vs. emotion, and life in general. The narrator is an unhappy man, and finds a kind of comfort in being unhappy.

In the second half, he tells us how he got to be that way, and illustrates his philosophies. He's a civil servant who deliberately chose a profession that doesn't pay as well to get away from his classmates. His classmates' biggest sin appears to be not appreciating his genius, so he invites himself to a going-away dinner for a classmate who, the narrator feels, doesn't deserve how much people like him. The dinner is beyond his means, and he's badly underdressed for it, but he goes, anyway. His mood isolates him from the others, turning the night into an increasingly uncomfortable one for the narrator.

He winds up at a brothel, where he takes his frustration out on the prostitute by telling her all the ways her chosen lifestyle is going to ruin her. His harangue eventually makes her cry, and he invites her to visit him at his humble abode so he can continue to convince her of the error of her ways. When she does, he heaps yet more cruelty on her, leaving them both deeply unhappy. And yet, he's somehow satisfied with the course of events.

The Underground Man fits into the rest of what I've read of Dostoyevsky's, as a villain whose mind we're deep inside. We don't need to guess at his motives, as we do with other antagonists; we're right there. Some of his thoughts, nonetheless, escape me, but his behavior is consistent throughout. The Underground Man is petty, peevish, both egotistical and terribly self-conscious, and baffling to anyone who is outside his perspective.

This is not a pleasant story to read, but it reveals a lot about the philosophy behind Dostoyevsky's stories. I would've liked to have read this in a literature class, so I could dig deeper into its themes and perhaps follow up with its influences and books it inspired. There's a lot more to this story than one cursory reading can cover.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Norman Dietz. He captured the Underground Man's gloomy outlook well, I thought, and his narration was clean and understandable.

View all my reviews

Review: Divergent (Divergent #1) by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd resisted picking this up, because I knew it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. I'd heard of it as the successor the The Hunger Games, a YA triumph, and other such hyperbolic descriptions. I wasn't tempted until my book group couldn't stop talking about it, and proposed an outing to see the movie, when it comes out. So I gave in to the hype, and gave it a chance.

It turns out my gut instinct was right. This is a pale imitation of other YA successes. I wanted to enjoy the story and characters on their own, but I kept running across logical problems with the world and its inhabitants that distracted me too much.

The world is a dystopian Chicago, where people are grouped into one of five factions: Abegnation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. No, I don't know why there are three nouns and two adjectives; the book doesn't explain. People are raised within one of the five factions, but they go to a school until they're sixteen, at which point they're tested, and they can choose which faction to belong to for the rest of their lives. If they fail the initiation or don't choose, they're Factionless, and perform the menial jobs while living in poverty. Which faction they choose decides their eventual career paths, but only after they're initiated.

Beatrice, who goes by Tris once she makes her choice, comes up in the tests as Divergent, meaning she could go to one of three factions. She chooses Dauntless, because that's the only one with an exciting initiation. I'm sure there are character-driven reasons why she makes the choice, but damned if I know what they are.

The bulk of the book is her initiation, learning to be fearless and falling in love with a boy and angsting about whether she fits in. The number of times she "finally" feels like she fits in, only to hesitate paragraphs later, gave me whiplash. While I understand her struggle on an intellectual level, on the page, it was too inconsistent. Meanwhile, she has to hide her divergence, for reasons that aren't entirely clear until the ending. Even then, if she'd been up against any other villain with any other endgame, it wouldn't have mattered.

My biggest issue with the book is Tris's passivity. Her choice to join Dauntless is the only one that makes any difference, up until the plot shows up in the last 10% of the book. While she's learning and participating in events around her, she doesn't have any impact on them until the very end. Even then, she spends more time staring dumbly at people while they kill people, or are killed for her. She does kill one person, which, after her hesitation to dispatch another (and patting herself on the back for her choice), is bizarrely inconsistent. She could've wounded that person, to the same effect, and thinks little of her choice to go for the lethal approach.

The factions, themselves, also make little sense. Very few people are born with only one trait. And, if the argument is that they learn to show that trait, then why are people allowed to cross factions when they choose? Why are kids taught at school at all, if intelligence is valued only by one faction? And it was never clear how much mixing there was between factions.

This is a debut novel, and it shows. It was like watching a play where the backstage workers all wear gold lamé and move the set pieces around in the middle of scenes. I could see things being set up for the characters, rather than the characters acting on the world around them in an organic way. The world, itself, existed the way it did because that was what was needed to justify this story.

I'm told the second book in the series helps fill in a lot of that, but I'm not impressed enough by the characterization or writing quality to give it that chance. I need the first book in a trilogy to stand on its own merit, and this one doesn't.

I listened to Divergent on audio, narrated by Emma Galvin. I have no complaints about the quality of the narration. She did fine, for what she had to work with.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've grown jaded about book hype. The more people rave about how good a book is, the more awards it piles on, the more I steel myself to hate it, or at least come away feeling unimpressed. The only exception, before this book, was The Book Thief. The list of books worth the hype doubles in size (and becomes a proper list, while it's at it) with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The story follows Arnold "Junior" Spirit through his fourteenth year as he realizes there's no future for him if he stays on the reservation. He enrolls in the nearby all-white school, angering most of his friends and neighbors, who view his transfer as a betrayal. He struggles with the culture shock of suddenly being surrounded by white people, retaining his identity as a Native American, and his drive to succeed despite his humble upbringing.

While the narrator's culture plays a large part in the story, that isn't all the story is about. Junior also has physical and developmental disabilities to deal with, poverty, deaths of those he loves, and fitting in at a new school. While all of these are informed, affected by, or perhaps even caused by his ethnic identity, they're struggles most teenagers should be able to relate to or empathize with. The personal racism he faces from fellow students and their parents, as well as the institutional racism that keeps those on the reservation poorly educated with few opportunities, is a strong element within the book. But it's not the only element.

The book is careful to paint nothing as black and white. Native Americans are never helpless victims, nor evil savages bringing their problems on themselves. The bullying that takes place on the reservation is more physical in nature, but it does have rules, and it's something Junior knows how to deal with. The bullying he experiences from his white classmates is no less vicious, but it baffles him, and his confusion does a lot to deflect it.

Similarly, there are no evil white characters, with the possible exception of his girlfriend, Penelope's, father. Junior's presence doesn't cure any of his classmates of their racism, but they do learn to question their assumptions and treat him like a human being instead of just a brown-skinned weirdo.

I felt the book's strongest point was the humor. Even in the midst of tragedy, Junior has wry observations that tempt the reader to laugh. I usually gave into temptation. Somehow, the humor doesn't undercut the seriousness, but instead underlines it. Junior has to approach everything with his wonderful sense of humor intact, or he'd just give up. He has so much tragedy in his young life. And yet, thanks to that humor, it never devolves into pathos.

I listened to the audio version of this book, read by the author. That made it a lot easier to laugh at the funny parts, because Sherman Alexie's comic delivery is perfect. It also clarified the part where people are making fun of how Junior speaks, which I would've imagined as far more exaggerated. Listening to this book on audio does mean I missed out on the illustrations in the printed edition, but I think it was a worthy sacrifice.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Bad MonkeyBad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd call myself a fan of Carl Hiaasen. I enjoy his offbeat characters, his plots revolving around corruption and illegal acts that skate in under the radar, and his insight into how Florida runs. (Hint: it's badly.)

So of course I had to pick up his latest book soon after it came out. I picked it up on audio, because I seem to get around to audio books much more quickly. I think I would've enjoyed a paper version more, but I also wouldn't be reviewing it until sometime next summer.

Bad Monkey starts with a tourist on a fishing trip catching a disembodied human arm. The arm makes it to our hero, Andrew Yancy, a soon-to-be-ex-cop, who shoved a hand vac up a man's rectum for insulting Yancy's girlfriend at the time. The man was his girlfriend's husband, and a well-respected doctor. The matter is settled out of court, but it takes Yancy off the force and puts him in a job inspecting restaurants for health code violations. This makes him suspicious of even food cooked in his own kitchen, and he thinks he sees roaches everywhere.

In hopes of returning to his position as a cop, Yancy looks into the mystery of the severed arm, and becomes convinced the wife did it. When several witnesses are murdered and someone comes after him, he starts to think he's onto something. His investigation takes him to the Bahamas, where the suspect widow is funding a condo by the ocean. That's where the titular monkey comes in. Driggs is a capuchin monkey with a skin condition and a fondness for fried food. His owner, Neville, was told he's the monkey from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the book does delve into Driggs's back story to confirm that. The monkey's behavior, though, indicates it's a lie. He's anything but tame, and brings Neville only grief. In trying to rid himself of the monkey, though, he unwittingly helps Dr. Rosa Campesino, Yancy's girlfriend and helper in the murder investigation, get free of kidnappers.

The plot is fairly convoluted, though still easy to follow. Perhaps it's the reliance on Hiaasen standbys. Yancy is the jaded but well-loved authority figure, capable of plenty of mischief. Rosa is the slightly unbalanced love interest, there are two evil developers, and dumb mooks abound. As always, in the end, the bad guys are punished, though the comeuppance comes well after the book's climax.

The ending felt rather padded, actually. We know the bad guys are doomed long before we find out their final fate. There are a lot of plot threads to wrap up, and a lot of characters to account for. It makes for an entertaining complexity, but it also made me feel like the book is too scattered, and would've been better told as a novella.

My only other complaint is that most of Rosa Campesino's quirkiness rests on the fact that she has some kinks. I don't find that particularly odd. But then, I'm well aware that what a person gets off to is no reflection on that person's sanity. Having kinks is not a sign of mental damage. The minor character who develops an auto-erotic asphyxiation fetish off-screen supports the notion that Hiaasen thinks something has to be wrong with someone who doesn't want vanilla sex, which is demonstrably false, and a damaging notion to promote.

The narrator for this audio book has a heavy New York accent, which, in a book about people in Florida, seemed a little off. I was distracted from the story anytime he had to pronounce a word with "hu" in it (yooge, yoomungous, yoomorous). He frequently sounded annoyed, like the book was a pain to have to read aloud, and he'd lower his voice in the middle of sentences. His emphasis was also off, making familiar words sound foreign. Needless to say, the narrator detracted from my enjoyment of this book.

Overall, I did like Bad Monkey, though its flaws became more glaring, read aloud by this narrator. If you're thinking of reading it, I recommend something you can read for yourself, instead of having to listen to this guy.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Doppelganster (Esther Diamond #2) by Laura Resnick

Doppelgangster (Esther Diamond, #2)Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Esther Diamond series. It's an improvement over the last book, though there are some indications the series might fall into some tropes I dislike.

In the previous book, Esther, a struggling stage actress, found out that magic exists, and stopped a sorcerer who wanted to sacrifice leading ladies to a powerful demon. In this book, her familiarity with magic serves her well, as it's the only explanation for the bizarre deaths taking place at her day job at an Italian restaurant. People with mod connections are seeing perfect doubles of themselves, and then dying within hours. A hit man asks Esther for help finding the killer. Meanwhile, Detective Lopez has been moved to the department that investigates the Mafia, and he'd very much like for Esther to stay out of it before his conflict of interest gets them both in trouble.

The title probably would've been funnier if it hadn't been adopted as the name for what's killing mobsters, and repeated throughout the text. Still, it's apt, and eye-catching enough to make someone want to pick this up, if it's the sort of thing they'd like.

This book never pretends to be anything it isn't. It's silly, fluffy urban fantasy, and Esther well knows how ridiculous it sounds. In case she forgets, other characters are more than willing to laugh or disbelieve. That made me feel this book is more grounded in reality than most urban fantasy, despite its humor trappings.

There were times, though, when it seemed the humor might rely on the absurdity a little too much. I worried future books might start to string together wacky hijinks, for lack of any better ideas. It gave me flashbacks to the Stephanie Plum series, which I've give up on.

For now, though, I do plan to read the next book. We'll see if it lays the above fears to rest, and continues to give me the fun melding of murder mystery and magic that I enjoy in these books. I also hope we see more Detective Lopez. Not because I particularly like him, but I like how Esther plays off him.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf practically since the paperback release. It had all the elements of a book I might enjoy, but I was worried the book in my head was more interesting than what was on the pages. That's why this book was on my 2013 TBR Challenge. And, while it wasn't the book I imagined, it wasn't as terrible as I feared.

The Historian may, on the back cover blurb, be about a search for Dracula. Anyone going into it with the expectation that we meet Dracula and he's as sexy and fascinating as the modern zeitgeist would have you believe will be disappointed, though. This Dracula is secretive and hidden, and requires lots and lots of digging to find. The book tells three generations' worth of searching: the narrator's (she is never given a name), her father's, and his mentor's, Professor Rossi. There are three different love stories, too, each with a different ending. Love, according to this book, is best kindled in the midst of chaos, and fanned from afar.

The story opens when the narrator finds a strange book in her father's library, blank except for a woodcut dragon in the very middle. He reluctantly starts to tell her what the meaning of the book is, but cuts his story short when the unsolved mystery pulls him away unexpectedly. While she tracks him down, she reads his letters containing the rest of his tale, and where he relates that of Professor Rossi. Her father, Paul, once went in search of Rossi, helped along by the daughter Rossi refused to acknowledge, who also has ties to the Dracula legend. There are strong hints Rossi may have been kidnapped by Dracula, or by one of his agents.

The narrator receives the least attention, though it isn't until the close of her story that the narrative threads are tied up. She's telling her story from the 1970s, while Paul is traveling a postwar (and semi-Communist) Europe. Rossi, in the 1930s, finds the borders more open, but resources more elusive.

I know little of European history, even from this century, so the information within this book was all new to me, and fascinating. I have no idea how many liberties Kostova may have taken with true events, but I was able to follow her version of history, for the most part. The various political squabbles, the Ottoman influence, and the minutiae of history may have been a bit painstaking, but they were broken up enough that I felt they didn't kill the narrative tension. Rather, they added to it.

There is one aspect with which I know the author took liberties. She has "Gypsy" characters show up in the narrative. They're there to make dire proclamations about matters they could only discern magically. While the stereotypes of Roma as magical fortune tellers is a positive stereotype, it's no less ridiculous than the ones painting them as thieves, liars and child stealers. I was thrown out of the book by the appearance of these characters-as-set-dressing, and I wish Kostova had found a better way to bring mysticism into it, without reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

Overall, I was glad for a reason to stop putting this book off. Now I know, for myself, what kind of story it contains. Though it isn't the one I would've written (just thinking of all of that historical research makes me tired), it's a good story, and an excellent addition to the Dracula mythos.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Indexing by Seanan McGuire

IndexingIndexing by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Indexing is a Kindle Serial, released in installments through an Amazon-exclusive publishing deal that gave us twelve tantalizing installments, spread out throughout six months. The episodes each had to function as a whole story, make the reader eager for the next one, and contribute to the overall plot. It was a tall order, but I think it was one that Seanan McGuire manages, for the most part.

The story is set in a modern equivalent where the last thing you want is a fairy tale ending. In this world, fairy tales can rise up to swallow entire cities. A Sleeping Beauty equivalent might be carrying an airborne plague, a Pied Piper can turn the happy woodland creatures against you, and a Wicked Stepsister might decide to stop fighting against her murderous impulses. The ATI is a secret police force that stops these fairy tales and mitigates the damage they might cause. The index of the title refers to the Aarne-Thompson Index, a classification grouping fairy tales and their elements. Correctly identifying a fairy tale appearance is essential to shutting it down.

Henrietta Marchen (Henry to her colleagues) runs a task force in the ATI, consisting of only one person whose life hasn't been directly touched by what they refer to as incursions. Henry's mother was a Sleeping Beauty, and she, herself, has all the hallmarks of becoming a Snow White. When the story opens, bluebirds are beating themselves to death against her closed window, desperate to bask in her sweetness. In order to keep her story at bay, Henry has to resist everything that tries to draw her in.

Sloane is the most memorable in her team. She had the potential to become a Wicked Stepsister, and only just sidestepped it. Sloane is prickly, snarky, and irreverent. She's also the oldest member of the team, and the only one who's been inside a narrative and lived to tell the tale. Therefore, she's attuned to the narrative, and can easily identify elements.

Demi is the next most memorable, as the confused rookie. One day, she was a college student; the next, she was recruited into the ATI ranks. She's an active Pied Piper, and her skills of persuasion come in handy.

I kept mixing up Jeff and Andy, because they're mostly background. Jeff's role as a former shoe elf makes him super organized, and well equipped to research pertinent details. Andy is untouched by the narrative, though he's seen what it can do. He also seems to be the only one with a social life; he has a husband and the best sense of the mundane parts of the city. He keeps the rest grounded in reality.

Andy isn't the only gay character to appear within the story. Some of the stories are gender-flipped to accommodate a gay central character. There's also a trans* person who serves an important role in the story. I felt his character was handled with dignity, and fleshed out just as well as the central cast. There are also heterosexual relationships and nuclear families, so you know it's not a side effect of the fairy tales leaking over into the "real world."

Most of the episodes are a case apiece, though some end on cliffhangers. Toward the end, there are more and more loose ends at the close of each episode. The ending doesn't wrap them all up neatly, though it does address the major conflicts in a satisfying way. Seanan McGuire has said on record that there are no plans to publish a season two at this time, but that it's up to her publisher. I take that to mean that it depends on the success of season one, which is why I'm pestering everyone I know to pick it up.

It's hard to tell if some of my sense of detachment from this book, in the end, comes because I had to read it in small chunks, or if the story, itself, was disjointed. I know there were several points where I found myself lost by a plot point because I'd forgotten what had happened before. Not that I'd ask for recaps or for frequent narrative hints; they would quickly become repetitive, especially if one were to read the entire story start to finish.

I do think the medium limited this story, and that it would be more enjoyable to read all at once. By the same token, though, I'm interested to see what creativity can come of limits. As an experiment, I would call Indexing a success. I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the world. I hope to read more about Henry, the ATI, and her team.

I am curious, though, how different an experience it would be to read the entire story at once.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd been meaning to read this book for quite some time, but its length intimidated me. I imagined a lot of sagging narrative and droning passages. After I picked it up on audio, the length was less apparent, and I listened to it happily. I was surprised to find a tight narrative with very little breathing room in the 34 ½ hours of listening time.

The story is straightforward: Chester's Mill is a small town in Maine that's suddenly, inexplicably blocked off by an impenetrable dome. While the US government scrambles to destroy it, a selectman in the town makes a power grab, recruiting young people to the police force to back him up, while a small handful of residents try to get rid of the dome from inside.

But that doesn't cover all of the story. This is a story of James "Big Jim" Rennie, the evil selectman running Chester's Mill, and of Dale "Barbie" Barbara, who's tasked with saving the town. It's also about Eric "Rusty" Everett and his wife and kids, the Dinsmore family on the edge of town, Phil and Samantha Bushey and their son Little Walter, Julia Shumway and her corgi Horace, Jackie Wettington and Carter Thibodeau and Peter Randolph and Andy Sanders and Rose Twitchell and Andrea Grinnell. The cast is even larger than that, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of people who appear in this book. The town has a population of about 2000 people, and few are strangers by the end of the book.

It's also a story steeped in metaphor. The dome is a commentary on 9/11, and the loss of liberty thereafter. It's a manifestation of the gravitational pull small towns exert on their residents. It's an indictment of the Katrina response (someone even tells Rennie he's doing a heckuva job). And it's the worst thing to happen to Chester's Mill and its 2000 residents.

The book's approach echoes 9/11 closely. It's no accident that a lot of the rhetoric and fear is the same as that following 9/11, and the weather changes bring to mind the eerie calm in the sky after the US was declared a no-fly zone. The body count in Chester's Mill is lower than on 9/11, but we feel the pain of every death. We learn that liking a character doesn't save him or her, in the end. We also see the helplessness of those outside, and the horrible choice faced by those who can either kill themselves (as many did on 9/11 by jumping from windows as the building burned) or await a fiery death.

The horror element is mostly human in Under the Dome. While the cause of the dome is supernatural, it's Rennie's and his cronies' response to it that turns the situation deadly. Rennie deliberately incites fear to tighten his stranglehold, and shows no remorse when people die or are seriously wounded as a result.

For all his evil, though, Rennie is human. He doesn't want to see how he's hurting everyone with his choices, and so he doesn't. I've known people like Rennie, ones who luckily didn't have his power. They stick to their poor choices, refusing to examine their motives, or the consequences of their choices. I've seen others react the way Pete Randolph and Junior and his friends do, too, mistaking stupid stubbornness for strength and integrity. If Rennie knows the harm he's caused the town, he never acknowledges it.

I'm glad Stephen King wrote this book. Sometimes, the scariest monsters are the ones walking among us. The best way to fight them is by learning to recognize them for what they are, and robbing them of their power before they get it. I hope that message sinks into the book's many, many readers. We're the ones with the power to stop people like Rennie.

As I mentioned, I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Raul Esparza. For the most part, I enjoyed his delivery. Because of the large cast of characters, though, he often had to vary accents to make each character sound distinctive. I couldn't figure out why people from the same Maine small town would have such different accents. Rennie had a Texan drawl that went with his lines just fine, but that drove me to distraction, wondering what a good ol' boy was doing in Maine. Had he a Maine accent like everyone else, though, he likely would've been hard to tell apart. At least Esparza's Maine accent was passable.

View all my reviews