Jun 28, 2015

The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton

This wonderful novel didn't quite make the cut for our Debut Authors panel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit David Mitchell-esque, "The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms" follows our eponymous hero from his birth to his death in a small village in Yugoslavia, with much wandering in between. It takes until about halfway through the book to hit the crux of the novel: Johan Thoms is the driver of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand fell victim to the shot heard round the world, thus launching World War I. Wracked by guilt which only increases as the horrors of WWI and then WWII grow, and convinced that he will be found and (rightfully, in his mind) blamed for causing millions upon millions of deaths, including that of his best friend, Thoms runs continually west, leaving behind his beloved Lorelei, who assiduously writes him a letter a day for decades.

The writing is fantastic, rich and nuanced and complex, hence the David Mitchell reference. The characters surrounding Thoms are delectable, with even the people who last only a few pages or less richly drawn without being overly described. This is a first novel, which Thornton says took seven years to write, and it shows in the extremely careful word selection. My only complaint is pacing. The first half mostly consists of a few months before the assassination, whereas the second half gallops through 1914 to the present day. I understand the decision, as it echoes Thoms' idyllic, slow-paced life before the unhappy day and then the madness into which he rather gleefully descends afterwards, but it's a little difficult for the reader to wrap her head around. Other than that, this is a truly fantastic first novel, and I very much look forward to Thornton's future work.

Jun 23, 2015

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

It's hard to believe I haven't read this fantasy classic until now. I'm surprised so many young children read it, though, because the language and style is not simple nor quick to read. It reminds me of The Lord of the Rings; epic and sweeping, with much description and little action or dialogue. Despite losing interest a couple of times, I liked it. The writing style is rather similar to "The Left Hand of Darkness," which I enjoyed much more, perhaps because it's science fiction instead of fantasy. I just find it hard to get into fantasy novels anymore; Patrick Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind" is the only one I've been able to get into in the last several years. Though I didn't love it, I'll read the rest of Le Guin's classic series, if only so people stop giving me weird looks when I say I haven't.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Who does one take with one on a ten hour plane flight? Why, Sir Terry Pratchett, RIP, of course. As with all his wonderful Discworld novels, "Snuff" is all fun and games on the surface and cutting social commentary underneath. This novel's skewered topic is slavery, racism, and ethnic arrogance.

While on a strictly enforced holiday, Commander Sam Vimes stumbles upon a dark secret about the treatment of goblins - a sentient race though of as vermin. It's rollicking, it's funny, it's smart - thank you, Sir Terry.

Jun 4, 2015

Emma, by Jane Austen

To prepare for this review, I rewatched Clueless. Oh, you didn't know that Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, was a modern retelling of "Emma?" Don't worry, very few people do. But having now read the book, it's an astoundingly faithful rendition, shone pretty brilliantly through a satire of 1990s culture. But enough about Clueless (which is on Netflix instant play, should this review inspire a Clueless craving).

"Emma" is the second Austen book I've read, and while I enjoyed it, it's awfully long. Four hundred pages is a lot of 18th century English to wade through, and the story is very slow to develop. I suppose that at the time it was written, people had much more reading time and the longer the book, the more hours of entertainment it could provide. Now it's a bit of a slog. The characters are exceedingly well fleshed out, to the point where I could have done with less of their monologues. But it's a cute story nonetheless: the precocious and beautiful Emma, determined to remain unmarried her whole life in devotion to her anxious father, instead tries to match others. She matches terribly, much awkwardness ensues, and the Highbury society is set all in a tizzy. She's a sweet character and it's a sweet book, I just would have been happier if Miss Austen had written a tad less of it.

May 31, 2015

Modern Romance: An Investigation, by Aziz Ansari

Yes, THAT Aziz Ansari, the guy from Parks & Recreation. If you've seen any of his recent stand-up, you'll know that Ansari has an interest in modern romance. Texting, swipe apps like Tinder, and online dating have totally altered the romantic landscape. In "Modern Romance," Ansari joins up with a sociologist to find how just how much the new technology, as well as advances in women's rights, have changed the way we look for and find love. Some of it isn't all that surprising, at least for anyone who's participated in online dating. But the presentation is fun and easy to understand, Ansari being witty and charming, and his conclusion that we need to give people a respectful chance and get to know them better is sweet and on-point. I can see older people who are interested in finding out how their children's romantic world differs from their own reading this and getting a very good sense of the climate, and I can see young singles reading it and coming to a mature understanding that for all the amazing things technology lets us accomplish, face to face human interaction will always win out. It's a fun little book on a very interesting subject by a talented comedian who genuinely seems to be a good guy, and I hope it does very well for him.

May 24, 2015

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

This debut novel was hugely successful a few years ago, and having finally gotten a chance to read it, I can see why. Taking place in 1938 New York City, "Rules of Civility" is the first person narrative of a tumultuous year in the life of Katherine Kontent, a New York native. Smart as a whip and employed as a secretary, Kate lives in a boardinghouse with her mid-Western escapee best friend Eve. On New Years' Eve, they chance to meet an incredibly charming Tinker Grey, a banker and (supposed) Ivy Leaguer. Their beautiful trifecta is thrown into disarray in a split second car crash: Eve's face is disfigured and she loses much of her left leg's mobility; Tinker, horrified to have caused her injuries, brings Eve to live with him and pays her way through recovery. Kate is left to watch from the outside as Eve entrenches herself in the upper crust, even as Tinker's facade begins to crumble away.

The writing is astoundingly good, particularly for a first novel. I have mixed feelings about the trend that leaves out quotation marks (here, speaking is denoted by a long "-"), but it quickly becomes unnoticeable. Kate's voice is smart and witty without being overly precious (just like her), and it's a joy to be sucked so deeply into the world of 1938 NYC. My only real complaint is the typeface, which is quite thin and strains the eyes a bit while reading at night. It's a really beautiful novel, well deserving of its bestseller status.

May 20, 2015

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, by Louis Theroux

In the late 1990s, Brit Louis Theroux was working for the BBC making documentaries about the strange and interesting members of some American subcultures, such as Neo-Nazis, porn actors, and UFO believers. Ten years later, Theroux decided to try and track down some of his subjects and find out how their lives had changed. Implicit in this is the question (and hope?) of whether they somehow decided to be "less weird." It's an interesting subject and an interesting book, but rather amorphous. The interviews shed light on some very dark corners of America, but there is little to string them together. And I don't know that I like his usage of the word "weird." Eccentric, maybe, or liminal, would perhaps describe these people a little better.

Several times, Theroux claims to like these people, despite their glaring flaws. Now, it's one thing to like someone despite the fact that, say, they like My Little Pony a little too much. It's another thing entirely to like someone who believes Jews rule the world and are in league with Satan and that all races other than whites are subhuman. That, to me, speaks of a deep-seated wrongness within someone, and it's a little dismaying to have Theroux expressing how nice a guy someone is despite, you know, the vicious and paranoid racial hatred. The book is fun and interesting, but I can't say I learned much from it, and it seems to really be an exercise for Theroux that he happened to decide on making into a book because he's a journalist and that's what he should do.