Dec 21, 2014

The Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

I will be the first to admit that I am sometimes afflicted with literary snobbishness, one area of which is the genre of mysteries. I've tried to read some, and they just don't appeal to me. My sense of most mystery/thriller authors is that they are skilled mainly in quantity, not quality. It was with some hesitation that I picked up this Laurie King mystery, but then found it to be so much fun! Granted, the main reason I enjoyed it so much as that it is ever so British. "The Pirate King" is King's eleventh novel in a series about Mary Russell, wife of Sherlock Holmes, who narrates with a quintessentially British wit. The mystery was rather secondary to the rest of the novel, which was just fine by me since mysteries aren't my thing. But it was quite clever, I thought, very engagingly written and smart, and I really enjoyed reading it. So now I know not to judge a book by its author, and that I have a new series I can read when I need my British humor fix.

Dec 14, 2014

The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey

I don't think my eyes have rolled so much while reading since I read "Shantaram." Ostensibly about Gilbert Bland, the man who stole hundreds of antiquarian maps from libraries across the U.S. during the 1990s, "The Island of Lost Maps" is overburdened with Harvey's navel-gazing. I wanted this book to be like "The Billionaire's Vinegar" or "The Orchid Thief," but instead it devolves into psychobabble about how maps are an allegory of the human fear of the unknown, both internal and external (duh); how Harvey's search for answers to why Bland would do such a thing parallels Bland's crimes themselves (eh...maybe); and how Harvey's attempt to understand Bland, as well as Harvey's understanding of himself, is exactly like Bland in key ways (quite a stretch, if you ask me). The crimes are fascinating, as is the history of maps (which we do get a lot of), but I barely found those parts worth wading through Harvey's ridiculous analogies and unfounded psychological theories. It's a silly book that could have been a really interesting book; such a shame.

Captive, by Aimee Carter

This is the sequel to "Pawn," which I loved; "Captive," unfortunately, as a bit disappointing. It's action-packed and stuffed chock-full of betrayals and twists and surprises, which make for a very quick - but not a very well-written - book. The curse of the science fiction sequel seems to be authors trying to make their book too much like a movie. "Captive" could easily pass for a fleshed-out screenplay, seemingly designed to work better on the big screen than in writing. It's unfortunate, that these authors feel they have to fall back on shocking revelations and actions sequences one after the other to keep our attention. That said, it was a fun enough read, and I do intend to read the third installment. I hope Carter dials back the action and lets her writing speak for itself, next time.

Dec 7, 2014

Disquiet, Please!: More Humor Writing From The New Yorker, ed. David Remnick and Henry Finder

This is a compilation of humor writing from the pages of The New Yorker, the second such collection. I really enjoyed seeing the continuity of style and tone throughout eighty years of the publication, as well as how humor has changed. Some I liked more than others, of course, and I obviously struggled with the pieces that reference people and events with which I'm not familiar. But it was still a fun read, worth recommending to people who enjoy smart humor with a strong dose of satire.

Nov 19, 2014

Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller

I rarely read memoirs, but this one as well as Tom Robbins' has got me thinking maybe I should do so more often. Fuller grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Africa, Rhodesia to start, then Malawi and Zambia. It's a life that's utterly foreign to me, not just because it's Africa, but because of her family's (and the other white people's) very real and comfortable racism. Her mother does not mince words when talking about the revolutionary wars in Africa, making it abundantly clear that they were cheated out of their land and the Africans don't deserve to be in power. But coupled with her daily clinic for the surrounding natives and more than one story about her saving a servant's life, I'm a bit confused about her attitude. Her reassurances to her children that they would never drink out of the same cups that Africans have mixed with her obvious love of Africa make for a complex woman. Not to mention her three dead children and the manic depression she is finally diagnosed with. I also find it really hard to understand parents who chose to raise children in such incredibly dangerous, unsafe places. They move to a farm in Rhodesia that is practically on the border of Mozambique and are constantly around rebels (terrorists, in their terminology). Fuller mentions quite often that she and her sister had worms half the time. Her parents seem to be constantly drunk, but that doesn't stop them from driving (on roads littered with landmines, no less). She and her sister start smoking and drinking pretty much as soon as they hit double digits. It's a life that I have no context for, it's completely incomprehensible to me; perhaps this is why I found the book so enthralling. It's told both in vignettes and with a larger overarching sense of structure and a more or less chronological nature. Fuller vacillates between child-like language when describing her own emotions and actions and rich, vivid descriptions of the people and the land. It's a fascinating book, and a fascinating life. I'm just glad I wasn't my own.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This is a haunting work of speculative fiction that has taken me a couple of days to digest. Peter is a pastor and lives with his wife, Bea, in England. Bea is a nurse, and saved Peter from a life as a drug addict and alcoholic when he both fell in love with her and became a Christian at her encouraging. Peter, but not Bea, is chosen by the amorphous American corporation USIC to visit the alien planet Oasis and minister to the natives. It's a dream job, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread the news of Jesus's love, but it means months without seeing each other with the only mode of communication being something akin to e-mail. Much to his surprise, Peter finds the Oasans very eager to hear his preaching, and he quickly begins to feel at home on the balmy, stark planet. The only thing interrupting his happiness is the increasingly upsetting messages he receives from his wife - things on Earth aren't looking so great, she's having a really hard time without him, and his lackadaisical and frankly self-righteous messages back to her aren't helping.

So what is this book about? The foreign-ness of an alien world and people? The end of the world? Marriage? Normal human interaction? It's about all of these things, and each reader will perhaps zero in on the message that most speaks to them. Personally, I believe it is about the loss of faith and regaining of a different kind of self-worth, one that encompasses not just yourself but the people who are around you. Meaning can be found in a bible or in oneself or in each other; for each of us it's different, and the struggle to figure out which is most important to you is sometimes Herculean.

The writing is wonderful, saturated and descriptive despite Oasis's lack of geological interest. As a science fiction fan, I appreciate Faber's measured, intelligent Oasans, and am impressed by the comprehensive species and culture he built. There is plenty here to satisfy dedicated sci fi readers as well as more mainstream ones. And I almost never note this, but the book itself (hardcover) is just beautiful. Amazing cover and fantastic gold edges. This is a book I'll keep on my shelf and lend out often.

Nov 15, 2014

Atlantia, by Ally Condie

I started off loving this newest YA fantasy/science fiction offering from Ally Condie, who wrote the very popular "Matched" series. Cool concept: humans poisoned the world, and had to Divide the population between those who'd live short, sick lives Above and the loved ones they sent to live safely Below. The Below depends on the Above for food and maintenance, and the two societies share a religion that encourages continued assistance from the Above. Rio, our protagonist, has just lost her mother (to a suspicious death) and sister (who chose to go Above, even though they had both decided to stay Below). The double loss is almost more than Rio can take, and the added pressure of concealing her true nature as a siren - one whose voice has the power to sway people's thoughts and emotions - eats away at her self-control. She immediately begins hatching a plan to escape to the Above and find her sister.

Like I said, it's a cool concept, but the writing leaves something to be desired. Important plot-jumps are made very suddenly and with little sense. Rio and True fall in love, but only because YA novels dictate there has to be a love interest; there's nothing in their interactions that indicate they even care for each other as more than colleagues, let alone love each other. And the reveal of the villain's secret was similarly sudden, described as pieces falling into place that were completely unforeseeable to the reader. Crazy plot twists are no good if they're totally out of the blue. Readers like to feel smart, like they might be able to guess what's coming, even if they can't. These things happen without warning, and so there's little tension generated in the story. It's choppy and threadless, and I'm disappointed that such a great idea falls so flat.