Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods by Tana French
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is another book in my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, and it has the distinction of being the first book I'm not glad to have made myself read this year. I'd been looking forward to a taut, psychological thriller. Instead, I wound up tangled in a narrative mess.

In the 1980's, two children vanished in the woods in Knocknaree, Ireland. A third child was found with blood in his shoes, and no memory of what happened. Then, over 20 years later, a girl is found dead, and there's a sliver of physical evidence linking the crimes. And the boy, now Detective Robert Ryan and all grown up, is the one assigned to the case.

The premise is intriguing. The follow-through, not so much. We're treated to every false lead, every tedious detail, every single bit of evidence that doesn't pan out. In the end, it's Detective Ryan's sudden flash of insight that breaks the case, and then the book plods on for another 100 pages.

If the idea was to steer people away from wanting to be police detectives, well done, French. By the 100-page mark, I didn't even care about the dead little girl anymore. And it wasn't because I cared about Detective Ryan's angst more. The interpersonal drama takes the forefront in the book, and it's the kind that irritates me most. Detective Ryan's problems all seem to stem from his stupidity or stubbornness.

There's something of a twist in the plot at the end, one that Detective Ryan plays right into, while I read on wondering how this idiot ever made detective. He misses some very obvious signs that a person is manipulating him, fails to question several points, and, in the end, lets a dangerous person get away with it. I understand this happens in real cases all the time, but, if I wanted to be immersed in the reality of tedious and frustrating work, I'd go back to working retail. I read books to escape the tedium, not to be reminded of it and shown how things I didn't even know about it suck.

This is the second thriller I've read this year that's been highly praised, but that I've found tedious and uninteresting. It seems it's just not the genre for me.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: Kitty and the Midnight Hour (Kitty Norville #1) by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty and the Midnight Hour (Kitty Norville, #1)Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this expecting a cookie-cutter urban fantasy. I was pleasantly surprised. Though this predates many of the current genre standbys, it manages to avoid many of the tropes that have made some aspects of the genre seem tired.

Kitty Norville is a radio DJ on KNOB. She's also a werewolf. One night, she wonders aloud about Bat Boy, the tabloid staple, and asks people to call in with their stories about the supernatural. Calls pour in, and her boss asks her to make it an ongoing theme. Soon, she's syndicated across the country, doling out advice about dating a werewolf, and pissing off the local vampire and werewolf leaders.

The werewolves in this series are about more than just furry animalism. The pack politics that make it so hard for her to disobey her higher-ups highlights several points in our world about consent, power, and bullying. Carl, her pack leader, is adamant he doesn't want her to continue doing the show, because to do so shakes the very foundation of his authority. But she continues, because she needs the show as much as the callers need her to continue putting it on.

Kitty's strength isn't always in her fighting, though she does make a point to take a self-defense class so she can take care of herself. The two most tense moments in the book are defused through her words.

The book sets up a lot of subplots for later exploration, but that's also a weakness. So much of the book is setup, with so little payoff, that it's hard to feel invested in any of the plots at all. The ones that end up getting addressed this book weren't the ones I would've guessed.

I plan on listening to the next book in the series. I'm looking forward to hearing what else Kitty can get up to.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Marguerite Gavin. She has an excellent radio voice, and I could believe that Kitty would have her husky alto. But her cadence was sometimes off, changing the meaning of some of the dialogue, and I'd have to mentally fix it.

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Review: Zorro and the Pirate Raiders by Johnston McCulley

Zorro and the Pirate Raiders: A Radio DramatizationZorro and the Pirate Raiders: A Radio Dramatization by Johnston McCulley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of all the Zorro dramatizations I've listened to, this is the weakest. Not because of the acting, but because of the story. This story is a mess.

In this installment of Zorro's adventures, Diego de la Vega is all set to marry the pretty Lolita Pulido when pirates raid their wealthy little pueblo. They've been sent by Captain Ramon, the sleazy governor's man who didn't learn his lesson the last time he lost to Zorro. The pirates kidnap Lolita, Don Diego's friends go after them, and Zorro sneaks aboard the ship to comfort Lolita and to make the pirates think the ship is haunted.

Zorro is captured three times within this story, convinces everyone he died twice, and dashes all over the countryside (and the ocean) in pursuit of the pirates. Lolita, meanwhile, manages to get her hands on two different daggers while she's in captivity, proving she's far more useful captive than her dear Zorro.

Captain Ramon's plans might've worked in this episode. The pirates far outnumber the police force and the citizen's brigade, and they're bloodthirsty, at that. But Ramon gets in his own way as often as he plots and plans. In the end, the plan collapses under its own weight as much as by Zorro's intervention.

I listened to this story on audio, acted out by The Colonial Radio Players. They always do a fine job with these roles. They're clear and understandable, despite their accents, and people sound distinct enough to keep them apart. The audio dramatizations are a really fun way of taking these stories in.

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Advance Review: Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale EndingsPrincesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won a copy of this book through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. While Goodreads does ask for a review in exchange for the advance reader copy, I was in no way compensated for my review.

This is a collection of stories about real-life princesses throughout history who made their marks, in one way or another. Several make power grabs, while others are known for being the true power behind the throne, or for their madness. There are some warriors, all from non-European backgrounds. Many of the stories are about princesses in the last century or so, known for a certain wildness.

The book's strength is that it covers a lot of different cultures. There are princesses from every continent but Australia and South America. It could've stuck to just European royalty, but the variety fills in a lot of gaps of my own knowledge of history. Two North American princesses are discussed, in very different terms due to their very different approaches to the white conquerors.

While this does go a long way toward showing us where the women were in history, it's not without its faults. The book uses "gypsy" to describe people of Romani heritage, and doesn't question the stereotyped views thereof. It also takes a modern approach to beauty, scoffing at descriptions of plump princesses as attractive and describing all of the European princesses in terms of their looks. The Asian, African, and Native American, apparently, weren't worth considering. Last, it often presents the mythologized stories of these royals for several paragraphs before cutting in to say that's not true, that this is how it really happened.

This book was a decent way to make history interesting and relevant to me. It adds on to my high school courses about dead white guys. But, as a primary resource, it's lacking. I think it's a good jumping-off point for discovering about different people and cultures, but it's not detailed enough. It is a fun read, though the last third felt rather repetitive.

I would recommend this book to middle school and high school students who are bored to tears of their history courses, and want to hear about something other than dates and battles and borders. Budding feminists may also be pleased with the new ammunition about how women have been erased from history.

This book will be released November 19th.

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The IdiotThe Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Please note that spellings of names may vary, as the novel was originally written in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

This was rather a dense read to start at the beginning of a brain-deadening summer. That's probably why I chose to pick it up on audio and listen to it while I drove myself in air-conditioned comfort.

At any rate, one cannot think of Russian literature and think of light, fluffy pleasure reads. Even the happiest stories have a bitter edge to them, coming out of that era and place. This is no exception. Long conversations may be trudged through, all to throw out one bit of dark foreshadowing. Minute details are picked over, all to delay the inevitable moment of horror. If nothing else, Dostoevsky knew how to draw out the inevitable.

The events of The Idiot take place over the course of less than a year, six months of which are glossed over in a few short paragraphs. The story covers the arrival of the innocent, goodhearted Prince Myshkin in Petersburg (now St. Petersburg), where he meets the family of General Ipanchin and is captivated by a photograph of Nastassya Filippovna. By that evening, he's proposed marriage to the lady, only to have her stolen out from under him by Rogozhin, a young man he met on the train and who's just inherited a million rubles. Rogozhin offers Nastassya Filippovna one hundred thousand rubles to spend the night with him, and, apparently overwhelmed by the notion of becoming a princess, she refuses Myshkin and accepts the money.

Six months later, Myshkin seems to have given up on her and is courting Aglaia Ipanchin, the youngest of the general's daughters. But she's not convinced Myshkin is free of the supposedly loose woman's clutches, and forces a confrontation. Meanwhile, Myshkin inherits a sum of money from a distant relative, nearly gives up half of it to a man claiming the right, makes a lot of friends, engages in long, philosophical conversations, gets tangled up in society gossip, and has several epileptic fits while under extreme stress. This last is enough to horrify people who want no part in a sick person's physical manifestations, though Dostoevsky's view is less judgmental. He speaks of a feeling of enlightenment filling Myshkin's mind when he goes into these episodes, and seems to imply his illness is what gives him his saintly outlook. By the standards of 1869, when the book was published, his view is liberal, though hardly enlightened by modern standards.

The title of the book is used ironically. Myshkin may be trusting and naive, but such trust draws out the better nature of everyone he meets. He enriches the lives of almost everyone he comes in contact with, and it's he alone who understands what plagues Nastassya Filippovna. He has great insight into the human mind, and his compassion serves him well in relieving his curiosity about the evils of human nature.

In some ways, I wanted to compare this to Jane Austen's work. It deals with the subjects of courtship and scandal and eligible bachelorhood. Much of the narrative takes place in drawing rooms or over dinners or in public gatherings. Also, the dialogue is similar, in that characters talk about subjects not immediately related to the narrative for pages and pages. In the end, though, it's far too dark for a comparison, nor does it read like a response to Austen's lighter fare.

Though I listened to this on audio, I don't recommend readers coming to Russian literature for the first time do the same. The Russian naming convention can be confusing if you're not used to it, and most of the characters are referred to by three or four names within the text interchangeably. That can be easier to keep track of on the page than on the audio, where losing track of a character can throw you out of a scene entirely.

The audio is good quality, though. Robert Whitfield has an array of accents which made it clear who was speaking, though some of them are obnoxious. (The girls' mother sounds froggy.) I understood every word of the narrative, and it moved along briskly, despite its density.

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Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy #1) by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy, #1)The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another off the list of books I promised myself I'd read this year. When I signed up for the challenge, I had no idea how much of a favor I was doing myself. I have no idea why I'd put off reading this book, and I'm so glad I motivated myself to finally pick it up. I enjoyed it immensely.

N.K. Jemisin's debut is a fantasy novel with gods and political intrigue, told in first person. The teller is Yeine, a young woman raised in the Northern tribes to be a leader. Because of her father's "savage" blood and her dark skin, she finds little acceptance in her grandfather's court, though she quickly captures the interest of the royal family's "weapons." There are four gods in residence in Sky, all of whom are enslaved to the will of the royal family. The most dangerous of these is Nahadoth, the Nightlord who's human by day, sensual and powerful by night. Yeine is warned early that none of his human lovers have lived through the experience, but she's drawn to him despite—or perhaps because of—the danger.

Jemisin set out a large task for herself in this book. She has a fantasy world to build and establish, a mythology to work into the story without slamming the reader over the head with it, powerful characters to build as vulnerable and flawed, and a large cast of characters to develop. She proves equal to all of the above tasks. This world is full and lush, without a second of infodumping. There are confusing moments, but I trusted the author to make everything clear by the end, and she does.

I loved the style the book was written in, too. Yeine doubles back on her story, sprinkles pertinent mythology into the narrative, and even argues with herself in some sections. A lesser writer might've made the narrative seem fractured with such techniques, but, in this book, it made it flow even better. I felt more like I was in Yeine's head as the story unfolded.

The romance could've felt contrived, or Jemisin could've gone with the alpha male shortcut. She did no such thing. The development of the relationships are as key to the story as Yeine's quest to find out who killed her mother. I understood why the characters felt the way they did for one another, even if I wouldn't have felt the same way. For all his scary sensuality and potential to be an alpha male, I liked Nahadoth. Even the antagonists had reasons for their choices, though Yeine found those reasons distasteful and self-serving.

This book didn't read like a debut. There was no clumsy exposition, no dragging passages that didn't serve the story in any way. The story sucked me in from the start, and carried me through a fascinating, tension-filled ride. This book didn't need to be this good, but I'm glad it was.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Every Dead Thing (Charlie Parker #1) by John Connolly

Every Dead Thing (Charlie Parker, #1)Every Dead Thing by John Connolly
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this up because the later Charlie Parker books caught my eye, and I like to start from the beginning. If this is any indication of what I'll find in the later books, though, no, thank you. For a thriller, this was awfully tedious.

Charlie "Bird" Parker is a former NYPD cop who lost his wife and daughter to a brutal serial killer. Some months later, he's a private investigator hunting down Catherine Demeter, but still driven to find his wife's killer, who a psychic informed him is called "The Travelin' Man." His search takes him to the dying town of Haven, VA, which is only tangentially related to his personal search. Then it's back to NYC, and down to New Orleans to take in some culture, break up a gang war by slaughtering one of the leaders, and to discover a lot of gruesomely murdered bodies.

Along the way, we meet dozens of people, about half of whom die. By the second half of the book, I'd given up on keeping track of anyone, certain most of them would be dead before the book ended. I wasn't wrong. Charlie, himself, kills almost as many people as the serial killer. The biggest difference is that Charlie doesn't have a grandiose reason for doing so. He pulls a thin veneer of self-defense over it, and that's good enough for the local police.

Despite the needless complexity, I still figured out the killer long before the ending. I never figure out the killer. I couldn't remember the killer's name, granted, but I knew who it was. But then, I don't think Connolly could've made names harder to keep track of if he tried. There were far too many names that sounded similar.

If you're considering reading this book, be warned that it contains some rather graphic descriptions of mutilation, during which most of the victims are still alive. It's not something that normally bothers me, but I'm sure I was scrunching up my face while I read.

I realize this is a debut novel, and that writers often improve as they go. I enjoyed The Book of Lost Things greatly, and I'm going to give his Samuel Johnson books a chance. But I really had to drag myself through this book, and kept going days at a time without opening it.

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