Dec 31, 2011

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

I'd been hearing about this book for a long time and finally decided to pick it up after a particularly heartfelt recommendation from my good friend and her boyfriend. Boy, were they right. The remarkable thing about this fantasy novel is that it isn't so much a narrative as it is a story. It's rare nowadays to find old fashioned storytelling, in any medium. This book is the first of three days' recounting of the story of Kvothe, a living legend, a man much mythologized in his own time. He tells his own story, and what a story it is. Non-fantasy-lovers would probably not enjoy the book as much as those of us who read a fair amount of fantasy, but one does get the feeling that Rothfuss could tell a good story no matter what medium he is working in, and no matter what the story is about. It's engaging, fast-paced enough to be a page-turner, and funny enough to make you laugh out loud on occasion. I'm quite excited to read the second and third books of Rothfuss's masterful story.

Dec 24, 2011

This Burns My Heart, by Samuel Park

This is the type of book that makes me want to rip the pages just as fast as I'm turning them. For me, that means it's really, really good. The narrative follows Soo-Ja Choi, a young woman in post-war South Korea who wants to become a diplomat. Her struggle, throughout the book, mimics what I would guess was the struggle of the entire country: how to honor their past and heritage while looking ahead to a vastly changed future. Soo-Ja marries into a family we would consider to be horrific and loveless, but which probably echoes the way of many families from that time and before. She fights against the stringent parochialism all while desperately wanting to bring honor to her family, both the one she was born into and the one into which she married.

There are two strings that pull Soo-Ja through her hateful life: her daughter, Hana, and the man she loves but did not marry, Yul. At every turn, Soo-Ja is confronted with the two-fold morality of post-war Koreans. I wanted to scream at her horrendous father-in-law for her, to argue on her behalf with her deadbeat husband. And this is how I know Park is an incredible writer; he is able to draw you so completely into the story of this woman that you can't shake yourself free even if you wanted to, and hope desperately that just one thing in this woman's life will go right. I read this book in two days, I think most people reading this will gobble it up just as quickly,.

The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffery

This is a compilation of three of McCaffery's Pern books: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. I read most of these books a long time ago but, of course, had completely forgotten them. I'm glad I've now had a chance to revisit and remember the delightful stories of the dragonriders of Pern. McCaffery, who recently passed away at the age of 85, had a deft touch plot and characters, and her books are a joy to read. While they aren't the best fantasy/science fiction out there, credit must be given for their originality when they first came out, and for McCaffery's decent writing skills. Her books are the perfect go-between for young adults looking to jump from YA fantasy into "adult" science fiction.

Dec 12, 2011

You Shall Know Our Velocity!, by Dave Eggers

This is the first Dave Eggers book I've read, and my main reaction: Wow. I can't believe I haven't read his work until now. Real literature wraps indelible truths in a story that pulls you in so strongly the truths hit you shockingly hard. This is exactly what this book does. The book is written in first person by Will, a 27 year old man who's life has been turned upside down by a sudden financial windfall, the death of one of his closest friends and his subsequent beating by three men in rural Wisconsin. He enlists his remaining closest friend, Hand, to join him on a cross-planetary trip on which he plans to give away $36,000 to those who seem to be in need. They start out in Senegal and end in Latvia, and we get every detail of their seven day trek.

Throughout, Will is caught up inside his own head. He holds imaginary conversations with those around him, remembers the painful events that precipitated the trip, explores his feelings about life, and death. The truths Eggers describes involve what it means to be ready to die, the solitariness one can feel even when being incredibly intimate with another human being, the desire to do anything and be everything all at once. I was struck most of all by Will's "paralysis of possibility," a phrase I myself conjured a few years ago when faced with certain life decisions. The money opened up infinite opportunities for Will, and suddenly he was paralyzed by the inability to choose. He yearned for limitations, clear-cut borders that pushed him into a definite direction. It's a feeling I can relate to.

Dec 7, 2011

A Crack in the Sky, by Mark Peter Hughes

This is the first new-ish young adult fiction I've read in awhile, and there are parts of it I liked and parts I didn't. I'll start with the latter first. The book can get a little preachy. Okay, a lot preachy. The premise of the series (this is the first installment) is that humans have killed the planet. One company has taken over every single aspect of life and supervised the building of domes to protect people from the Outside. Everything is run by the CloudNet, an infrastructure/entertainment system designed to keep the populace happy, productive, and ignorant. The reality is that the world is ending, and the company, InfiniCorp, has decided to simply live life as well as it can since nothing can be done to save the planet. If you're thinking this sounds a little like WALL-E, well, it does. It read a lot like WALL-E, and I'd be shocked if the author didn't take his initial inspiration from that brilliant movie. The blurb on the back calls the book "completely original," when it most certainly is not that. I have no problem with inspiration and leapfrogging on top of others' great ideas. But then to turn around and say it was "completely original" does not sit very well with me.

That being said, the book is pretty well written and engaging enough to make me want to keep reading it. One of the main characters is a mongoose with a chip in her brain, and though her speaking voice is incredibly annoying (not even a devoted pet, if s/he were able to speak, would call its owner "darling" or "my dear"), her presence is intriguing. Eli, the protagonist, can be a bit annoying, but what 13 year old boy isn't? What Hughes does well are bad guys. Most of these characters are just nuanced enough to make them believable, and truly scary. Yes, there are one or two who are evil just for the sake of being evil, but many others actually believe what they are doing is right, and that makes for the best kind of bad guy.

I think in a genre that leans heavily towards very strong female protagonists and either super-spy or super-nerd male protagonists, it's good to have a realistic, strong boy be the hero of a series. I feel comfortable recommending this series to a boy who enjoyed, say The Golden Compass (though it isn't nearly that good) but wants a slightly more relatable main character.

Dec 5, 2011

Thud!, by Terry Pratchett

For years, people have been telling me I need to read Pratchett's books based on my love of Douglas Adams and Larry Niven. They were right. His books are always shelved in science fiction/fantasy, but it's actually rather difficult to categorize him. This particular book was more a mystery than anything else; it just happened to take place in a world with vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, and a little bit of magic. The writing is fast-paced, with a healthy dose of British quirkiness that occasionally had me laughing out loud. As an introduction to Terry Pratchett, it definitely makes me want to read more of his work, and I greatly look forward to doing so.

Nov 28, 2011

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This famous retelling of the Arthurian legends is a seminal work of feminist fantasy, and I can well see why it is; I just wish the writing was good enough to justify it. Bradley was certainly breaking new ground when she wrote this tome, and it is easy to understand why girls and young women devoured it. Now, however, after having read many books inspired by her genre-creation, I know that there are many better writers than Bradley. The descriptions are good, but the emotions of her characters are incredibly repetitive: "Oh, how I love him! Oh, but he is wicked and I hate him! Oh, but I pity him so, he can't help it! Oh, but I hate him, he's a traitor! But I love him!" It isn't that people don't actually think that way; they certainly do. That doesn't mean, though, that I want to read 875 pages of it... Less than stellar writing notwithstanding, I'm glad I read it, so at least I know what everyone raves on and on about, and I wouldn't not recommend it to a young girl looking to read more complex books than those labeled "young adult."

Nov 17, 2011

The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers

This is the third book I have read by Moers, and it did not disappoint. If anything, it was even better than the other two, since it's all about books and the people (creatures?) who love them. This is an absolute must for any avid book-lover. There is danger, excitement, mystery, fantasy, and the entire story is run through with an incredible love and respect for the written word.

The action takes place underneath the famed city of Bookholm, a metropolis entirely dedicated to any and every aspect of the book business. Our hero and narrator, Optimus Yarnspinner, a dinosaur from the famed literary stronghold Lindworm Castle, goes to Bookholm in search of the author of the most amazing piece of writing he has ever read. His innocent search runs afoul of many terrifying and nefarious characters, and he nearly dies several times. The action is breathtaking and the writing style impeccable, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Moers, and his translator, are truly masters of their artforms.

Nov 10, 2011

When you are Englufed in Flames, by David Sedaris

This is the second book of essays I've read by David Sedaris; the first was "Me Talk Pretty One Day." That book was hilarious, I often found myself laughing out loud. This book, while it definitely has its funny parts, is much more introspective and, as such, rather more powerful. The events Sedaris writes about are largely inconsequential in the span of a life, and there are several essays written not about a single happening, but about a person over a period of time. This makes the essays more poignant, more meaningful than just another funny circumstance. I've always been a fan of short narrative formats, be they essays or fiction, and this book did not disappoint. I'm interested to read more of Sedaris' work in order to see whether this particular compilation represents an evolution in his writing over time, or if it is a stand-alone set.

Nov 7, 2011

The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine

Wow. That sure explains a lot. Brizendine's short book follows the progression of a typical female brain from 6 weeks after conception all the way past menopause. Her conclusions are backed by decades of work studying women and hormones and an incredibly extensive list of studies and sources. Her goal is to make women aware of how their brain is wired (i.e. for the Stone Age; our world has evolved much more quickly than we ever will) so that they can understand why they act and react as they do, thus enabling them to make more informed choices.

Brizendine's arguments are convincing, and for any woman who has gone through what she describes, eyeopening. I now understand why men and women have such a hard time communicating, and why I feel the need to gossip with my girlfriends even though I loathe drama and talking behind anybody's back. Brizendine's writing only rarely gets bogged down; I read the nearly 200 pages in only two days, a feat unheard of for me when it comes to non-fiction. I absolutely recommend this to every woman, so they can better understand themselves, and every man who is perpetually confused about why the women close to them act the way they do.

Nov 5, 2011

Irresistible North, by Andrea di Robilant

I decided I needed to make a foray into nonfiction after so much Tamora Pierce, and this was a great choice. This short book is about the Zen brothers, medieval Venetian gentlemen who's Renaissance descendent claimed had traveled to Iceland, Greenland, and North America in the 1390s. Di Robilant researched both the journey itself and its historiography, which was a back and forth debate over the veracity of the account. Di Robilant retraces the steps the younger Zen claims the brothers took, trying to identify confusing place names and oddly drawn maps with actual places. Never does the author claim to be the deciding voice on the matter, though his research and work is compelling.

The writing is quite easy to read; the narrative flows and, since much of it is first person as opposed to the boring third person factual descriptions of most history books, the book reads more like a story than a retelling of facts. This is light reading, perfect for someone interested in history but not willing to dive straight into the depths of historical nonfiction.

Nov 1, 2011

Mastiff, by Tamora Pierce

Thus ends Pierce's first-person trilogy about George Cooper's famous ancestress, Beka Cooper. Beka is a guardswoman in the Provost's Guard, an equivalent to today's police force. She patrols the slums of the capital of Tortall with her partner, Tunstall, an older man, her scent hound, Achoo, and Pounce, a black cat with purple eyes and deity-like powers (he's a constellation, not, as people keep thinking, a god).

What is so interesting about this book, which is just as enjoyable as all Pierce's other books, is that it details the rise of the Gentle Mother cult. Its adherents believe that women who fight are trapped by the violence of the lives they lead, and would be fulfilled if only they'd settle down, get married, and have children. This religious movement explains the disappearance of Tortall's lady knights by the time we meet Alanna in the first books Pierce wrote about the realm of Tortall. I'm impressed by an author who is both willing and able to put such a backstory to her work, so that the world is just as consistent as our own. I continue to collect and read Pierce's work with great enjoyment and pleasure.

Oct 29, 2011

Protector of the Small Quartet, by Tamora Pierce

This four book series by my favorite childhood author takes place in the familiar realm of Tortall, a land Pierce created first in the Song of the Lioness series. The main character is Keladry of Mindelan, a ten-year-old noble girl who's greatest wish is to become a lady knight, and to follow the example of her idol, Alanna the Lioness. We follow Kel through her four years as a page, four years as a squire, and then her first year as a knight. Kel is likable, strong and intelligent, a caring young woman who refuses to stand idly by while those with power mistreat those without. As always, Pierce's writing is lucid, entertaining and fun, imbued with a solid sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice.

I actually got a chance to meet and speak with Tamora Pierce some days ago, and she did not disappoint. She was kind and intelligent, and speaking in front of a group of very excited teenaged girls, she was inspiring and free with both sarcasm and good advice. It is not every day that one gets to meet one's favorite author since the age of ten, and she most certainly lived up to my expectations. It's not surprising that her characters have such a good sense of right and wrong.

Oct 22, 2011

Don Quixote (Part II), by Miguel de Cervantes

The second part of Don Quixote was written in response to a false second book written by an author other than Cervantes, and we hear about this imposter quite a bit. This installment is more plot-driven than the first, so it flows a bit better as a story instead of presenting lots of little, unconnected snapshots. Sancho Panza is a good deal wiser than in the first part: he proves himself astonishingly capable at governance, and wily enough in his own right to manipulate situations to suit him.

Other than these small changes, the second part is much the same as the first. Don Quixote is utterly mad then completely coherent by turns, and his words and actions never cease to amaze even those who had read about him in the first part of his history. Due to people knowing of him, various tricksters devise humorous adventures for him, and though they laugh at him, no one can deny his general good sense. And as graciously as he lived, Don Quixote dies, "cured" of his madness but no less gallant for it. This novel is truly a treasure that people will enjoy for yet more centuries to come.

Oct 4, 2011

Lamb, by Christopher Moore

Once again, I am vindicated in my love for Christopher Moore. This book is about the missing years of Jesus' life, from 6 years old until his death, as told by "his childhood pal, Biff." Is it hilarious? Yes. Is it blasphemous? Yes. Is it offensive? Most likely. Is it brilliant? Absolutely.

This is the most message-driven of Moore's books that I've read, and it's a message I like. Moore has Jesus and Biff traveling throughout Asia and the Middle East in a quest to find out what truly matters, searching for the Divine Spark. While learning from various wise men, Jesus realizes that the extreme differentiation his people, the Jews, engaged in as a result of a millennium of persecution, was not the way to God. He persistently comes up against the wall, even among his own disciples, of not understanding that EVERYONE is welcome in the kingdom of heaven. His message to love all, no matter what, is lost even on those who followed him and loved him most. It's a poignant message, not at all undercut by Moore's comedy and intermittent vulgarity. As always, I look forward to reading more of Moore's books.

Sep 29, 2011

Don Quixote (Part I), by Miguel de Cervantes

When I finally picked up this classic, it was with a bit of trepidation. Reading classic literature is often enlightening and interesting, but also challenging and occasionally tedious. Not so with Don Quixote, Cervantes' tale of a deranged man who thinks himself to be the revival of knight errantry and his simple companion with lofty goals, Sancho Panza.

Cervantes pulls no punches with Don Quixote's madness; his insanity is pointed out at every moment, and though it is mocked by his acquaintances, Cervantes imbues him with a certain gravitas that one must take seriously. There is also, of course, plenty of toilet humor and slapstick, mixed in with a hefty dash of hypocrisy and irony. The monologues tend to get long-winded, but other than that, this is a surprisingly entertaining read. I look forward to reading the second part.

Sep 5, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

It's easy to see how this book became a classic; it's mind-boggling, engaging, infuriating, and eye-opening. Though it's labeled science fiction, it really defies such classification. "Stranger in a Strange Land" is equally science fiction and philosophy. It uses fiction as a means of holding up a mirror to ourselves, and what we see, what Heinlein saw, wasn't pretty.

The plot is this: Valentine Michael Smith is a human being born on Mars and raised by Martians. He is discovered and "rescued," and begins to learn what it is to be human. And he does, eventually, but not without first changing utterly and completely those he comes in contact with. He is a Superman: beautiful, highly intelligent, and capable of producing what average men call miracles in the blink of an eye. He attains the Truth - "Thou art God" - and goes about trying to educate the human race.

The result is this, as witnessed through the many philosophical discussions in which the characters take place: man is a brutal, unkind species. He has become so infatuated with hate and differentiation and violence that he cannot even recognize it in himself. Humans have so utterly stigmatized the only true act of love (sex) that there is room for nothing but "wrongness." The Man from Mars reenacts the story of Jesus, who also died in giddy violence all while preaching love. The ending message is one of hope, albeit dim, that eventually humanity will weed out the wrong and embrace the good, embrace oneness and love. But the path to goodness is always riddled with martyrs.

Aug 27, 2011

The Vikings, by Robert Ferguson

The most important part of Ferguson's book on the history of the Vikings is this caution to his readers: we really don't know very much. Our knowledge of the Vikings and their culture is severely limited; they left very few primary sources, and most of what we do know comes to us from, at best, a hundred years after the events happened, and narrated by Christians for whom historiography was more of an art than a science. There is much we can infer about these people, but it mostly consists of best guesses. In this book, Ferguson does his best to present to the reader the best of the best guesses, while also including differing theories and opinions so as to present a complete picture of possibilities.

The book is well written, though the first hundred pages goes much quicker than the last two. It could just be personal preference, but once Ferguson gets past the discussion on the religion and culture of the Vikings and gets into rote history, the narrative becomes rather dull. There are moments of wry humor, and Ferguson is, for the most part, an engaging writer, but facts presented as merely facts can only hold my interest for so long. The first section on religion and mythology, as well as the history of Viking archeology, was more to my taste. That being said, this is a solid, readable and approachable history of a fascinating people about whom we know too little, and I would recommend it to a lay reader looking to learn more on the subject.

Aug 7, 2011

A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. If you are looking for serious, morose fiction, this is definitely not it. Moore's writing is lighthearted but seriously dark at the same time, hilarious and, at times, vulgar. He's like Chuck Palahniuk with a sense of humor and a lot less gore. His writing never ceases to make me laugh out loud, and that is a rare thing in fiction.

This particular novel is about a Beta Male who becomes a Death Merchant, helping to pass the souls of the dead onto their next possessor, the person who will bring that soul to the next level. He becomes death on the day his beloved wife days, the day of his daughter's birth. The book takes about a hundred pages to really get going, but once he starts, the roll doesn't stop. Christopher Moore is an author that I intend to collect and keep.

Aug 4, 2011

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

There are only so many epiphanies one man can have before one begins to wonder why none of them have stuck...Such is the case with Roberts' main character, the first person narrator named Lin. Shantaram is based on Roberts' own experience as a heroin addict, escaped convict, and mafia don in Bombay. This is remarkable and and of itself, and the story is simply too fascinating to put down.

This is a first novel, though Roberts spent many years, most of them in prison finishing his sentence, to complete it, and yet it still reads like a first novel. The writing is good, quite good, but it's a little over the top, a little too extravagantly descriptive. The people and culture within the novel make it worth the read, but the eponymous protagonist becomes a tad annoying after a while. Every single chapter - out of 933 pages - ends with major soul searching and another lesson learned by Lin...who never seems to actually get the lesson through his thick skull and has to have the same epiphany again, over and over. It gets old.

What pulls the book up by its bootstraps is the love Roberts clearly has for India and her people. One hopes that we will all someday find that place that so exquisitely feels like home as Roberts describes his Bombay. Shantaram is worth the read for that sake alone, but I doubt I'd be interested in anything Roberts writes in the future.

Jul 21, 2011

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells

This classic piece of early science fiction is nothing like what I thought it would be. No doubt, this is due to Hollywood-ized versions. Wells' work is not a heart-stopping, action-packed masterpiece. It is, instead, a study of how humanity would react to and be affected by a hostile alien invasion, which is also an easy allegory for First World technology assaulting a Third World country. The outcome? Wells imagines that humans become innately self-centered. They think only of themselves and their own survival, and perhaps even possible profit. Wells clearly sought to shake humanity from its complacency, to push scientific endeavor to the extreme, to prepare for a time when we realize we are not the be all and end all of life in the universe.

The message aside, the writing is typically late 19th Century, very heavy on narrative, with little dialogue. It's a tiny book, but not necessarily quick to read. However, I believe it to be a necessary read for any fiction lover, and especially for devotees of science fiction.

Jul 17, 2011

The Lantern, by Deborah Lawrenson

This is another book my boss asked me to screen for her, but luckily I had a completely difference response: it's absolutely fantastic. "The Lantern" is Lawrenson's first novel, and it doesn't even show. Simultaneously a love paean to Provence and a story of ghosts and murders, the writing is incredibly lush and vibrant. Scent plays a very strong role in the novel, and Lawrenson writes of it with ease and sensuality. Though the beginning is a bit awkward, the reader quickly gets her bearings and is welcomed into the all-encompassing solitude of two people drawn inexorably to each other. The relationship grows and changes, as do those living in it, while in the background we try to figure out the much darker tides that pull beneath the surface. I read this book, nearly 400 pages, in a day and a half. Any reader who luxuriates in skillful writing will love this book, no matter what their tastes in subject or genre. I cannot wait until this comes out in a couple of months to suggest it to everyone I know.

Jul 15, 2011

Forbidden, by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee

I was given this book by the buyer for the bookstore I work in so I could suss out whether she should buy it or not: she shouldn't. The basic premise is good, though unoriginal - humans, having faced the horror and destruction wreaked upon their race by the capriciousness of emotion, eliminated the ability to feel any emotion aside from fear. The Order rules all in perfect dictatorship, and there has been no public act of violence in 480 years. However, we begin to learn that the birth of this new era was anything less than perfect, and that humans are not truly living. This is not a new concept. The movies "THX-1138" and "Equilibrium" have already covered this ground, and much better than Dekker and Lee have.

The writing is almost juvenile; there is far too much repetition and the dialogue is forced and awkward. We do not need people to be described as "dead" fifty times in order to understand what the authors mean. The book sorely needs an editor with a heavy hand. It's gripping, in its own way, and certainly isn't the worst work of science fiction I've ever read. But it also certainly isn't a good one. Unless you can't get enough of dystopias, don't bother picking this one up; there are much better options to choose from.

Jul 14, 2011

Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures, by Walter Moers

This is the second book of Moers' that I've read, and it did not disappoint. In this journey we follow Rumo, a young Wolperting (dog-like creatures with horns, the ability to speak and walk on two legs, and renowned for their fighting prowess) who goes on a search for his Silver Thread - the colored scent that denotes love. This book is a good deal darker than "The Alchemaster's Apprentice," and much more violent. The themes are similarly simplistic, and the writing is absolutely fantastic, but the narrative tends towards the gruesome. Where "The Alchemaster's Apprentice" could be classified as Young Adult literature, I would not do the same with this book. Again, Moers displays the incredible originality that hooked me in the first book of his that I read, and I absolutely look forward to reading more of his books set in the fantastic land of Zamonia.

Jul 4, 2011

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

I am blown away by how talented a writer Maguire is. This book was incredibly popular around the time I was working in my first bookstore, and I kind of just assumed that meant it was going to be mediocre (most NY Times bestsellers are romances and mysteries, not exactly what literary snobs would call "high quality"). Boy, was I proved wrong.

Wicked, as most people at this point know, is the life story of Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West, who lives in Frank Baum's land of Oz. That's about where the similarities between the two stories end. There are the obvious recognizable characters, but around them, Maguire built up an entirely original, unique world. Oz has geology, various opposing theologies, political history, socioeconomic strife; in short, it has everything a real place does. Elphaba may be green and can't stand the feel of water against her skin, but she is all too human otherwise. We travel with Elphie through her complicated and willful adolescence, through her rebellious political activist stage, and through middle-aged regret. She is selfish to her core, believing that the world can be saved by her own actions and needing validation, in her own, quiet way, for all that she has done, both good and bad. Elphi is an anti-hero at its best; we can't help rooting for her, despite how unlikable she really is.

I am in awe of Maguire's skill, to have taken such well-worn, beloved ground and been able to create something so brilliant and unique from it. I know he's written quite a few other books in the same vein, and I would certainly like to read them, but I do hope he tries his hand at something different, just to see what he can do.

Jun 26, 2011

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

The second book in the Dune series, "Children of Dune" is a much more cerebral work than the first book. The action is mostly within the realm of political drama, or within the minds of Paul and his sister Alia. The Jihad has already occurred, Paul's visions of a terrible, ravaging war have come to pass; now we are in the aftermath. Paul questions how he might get himself out of the cycle of prescience, and comes to the conclusion that only one of the many possible outcomes is the least horrible.

I liked this book, though not nearly as much as the first. Paul, despite his protests to the contrary, knows he is as a god and uses his power as such. Alia is torn between the age-old nature of the Reverend Mother's wisdom she was born with and the blossoming 16 year-old body she has. Both of these characters, despite Herbert's efforts, seem to me one-dimensional. The most interesting characters are the secondary ones. Hayt, the ghola of Duncan Idaho, is immensely fascinating. The Fremen who helped Paul lead his Jihad display two common reactions to sudden ethnic power: nostalgia for the old ways and heady enjoyment of the new. Irulan, Mohaim, Scytale, Edric: these schemers brought together by necessity fight the needs of the group in order to obtain their own goals.

What I found contrived was the attraction between Alia and Hayt. It's not so much the relationship itself that bothers me as the way Herbert wrote it. It reminds me of how he described the attraction and love between Paul and Chani in "Dune." While Herbert did a great job of writing about older love, like Paul and Chani's throughout "Children of Dune," he is not nearly as good at describing the initial stages of it. The clumsiness of the prose when this subject is brought up took me out of the visualization of the novel. I don't believe I will read more of the Dune books, though I might finish the ones that were written by Herbert himself.

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

This is one hell of a novel. It starts out a bit rough, what with the narrator describing such excruciating details as how his skin reacted to the gasoline-fueled fire that raged as a result of a horrific car crash, or his drug- and sex-addled upbringing that lead him to a lucrative career in the porn industry, or the process of debridement, the shaving off of scabby, dead skin from burned flesh. All of this is a little nausea inducing, but what comes out of the fire is just spectacular.

Enduring months and months of treatment in a hospital's burn ward, the nameless narrator is suddenly visited by a woman from the psych ward. Her name is Marianne Engel, she says, and the two of them have been in love for 700 years; that last of her hearts is meant for him. This incredibly bizarre and somewhat unsettling first meeting leads to a friendship and mutual dependence that is described a little bit reluctantly by the narrator, who pushes though with the story because he feels he must. As the narrator's body recovers, Marianne's mental illness worsens, and her fantastic gargoyle carving sessions start to drain away her life force. Through all this, however, she continues to tell him the story of their love, in addition to four other love stories from around the world and across the centuries.

Davidson's writing is fantastic. Even though the more difficult sections, his prose pulls you though and ensnares you. I found myself crying as the book ended. It's an amazing story, and an amazing novel, especially as it is his first published book. I hope Davidson retains the unique character of his writing and continues to inspire.

Jun 13, 2011

Parisian Chic, by Ines de la Fressange

What a fun book! This is departure from my usual book fair, though, unbeknownst to most, I actually read fashion and style magazines quite a bit. First of all, the presentation of the book is really cool. Tons of pictures, cute little drawings, easily digestable bits of information, and there's a section for notes at the back, just where I looked for it!

The book itself is meant as a guide to living one's life as a Parisian woman does, though its many hints and suggestions seem like just plain common sense. The pervading idea is that a real Parisian wants to look good, put together, and have great things, but never, EVER, wants to spend a lot doing it. She is much more likely to brag about a fantastic supermarket find than an expensive label item. With this is in mind, de la Fressange suggests tons of Paris stores (nearly all with online inventories) and ways to get the basics down so you can mix and match - clothing, make up, furniture, entertaining - it works for everything! Plus there's great sections on things to do in Paris when you're visiting, either on your own or with children. This is definitely a book I'll be referencing again and again.

Short Fiction, by W.B. Yeats

I'd never read anything by William Butler Yeats before (I'm not much for poetry), but I enjoyed these stories by Yeats. Most of them follow a pretty standard theme: the characters and locations are straight out of Irish folklore, and the Shee - the fairy folk - play a very prominent role. Often, there is palpable tension between the material world and the magical/spiritual world. Entities in one world fall in love with someone from the other, or have it out for someone from the other, or simply make appearances into their lives.

Yeats' writing is quite good, but easily placed within his time period (late 19th century). I actually more enjoyed the pieces that were least magic-filled, which is different for me. I would be interested to read any more of his work that involved, as his father called it, "real people."

Jun 1, 2011

The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathon Stroud

I love, love, love these books! Stroud once again presents a characteristically British, snarky novel about the most beloved djinn, Bartimaeus. The character is the same as in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but everything else is different. The story takes place in the Middle East during King Solomon's reign in Israel. The human protagonist is Asmira, a young hereditary guard of the queen of Sheba who is tasked with assassinating the arrogant, demanding Solomon and stealing his incredible Ring of power with which he holds all of the nearby nations under his sway.

The highlights of the book are, of course, Bartimaeus and his "demon" friends; they are sarcastic, rude, intelligent creatures, and Stroud has them engaging in the most delightful conversations. The description of "long, lean, dark limbs" tends to repeat itself a bit much, but other than that, Stroud's writing is just as entertaining and engaging as ever. I look forward to more Bartimaeus books, and also hope that Stroud delves into another character or genre, so we can see how broad his talent is.

May 29, 2011

N-Space, by Larry Niven

I once again return to my favorite science fiction author, Larry Niven. This is a collection of short stories and excerpts drawn together to commemorate the anniversary of Niven's first published work. I was pleased that I'd only already read one of the stories, and was, as usual, thrilled with his other works. One story that particularly stands out is a little different from Niven's usual in that it is, at heart, a love story, and rather less snarky than his writing is normally. Niven's introductions to each piece are illuminating and interesting. I especially enjoyed the few essays in the collection, which display what is clearly a towering intellect that is often toned down for novelizations. These works, again, leave me hungry for more Niven, and I look forward to one day owning his entire body of work.

May 4, 2011

A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester

Since I first expressed interest in the Middle Ages, people have been telling me to read this book. Funny, since it's actually about the Renaissance...

The writing is undeniably engaging. Manchester, despite his penchant for rather esoteric vocabulary, is quite readable. His narrative is impassioned and informative, without ever sounding dry. He tends, in fact, to get a little over-emotional at times. The end of his book quickly becomes a paean to heroism, generally, and Ferdinand Magellan, specifically, and it ends on the rather uncomfortable note (even for an atheist) of insisting that religion and the belief in God are dying and will continue to fade away. I don't necessarily disagree with Manchester on this point - though in light of recent cultural happenings, perhaps it is too soon to reach such a conclusion - but the tone is almost denigrating towards those who do still espouse religious beliefs.

I also ran into the same problem that I did with Charles Freeman, namely, that Manchester seemed to begin with the base assumption that the medieval period was absolutely, positively, disgustingly horrendous. Now, I'm not about to argue that it was a fantastic place and time to live, but I do try to withhold certain judgments because, as a product of my own time and place, it is impossible for me to truly comprehend what it was like living back then. Sure, life expectancy was terrible, and hygiene wasn't even close to acceptable, and religious/"superstitious" (Manchester's own term) beliefs were unquestioned, but had I actually lived then, having not known anything else, would it really have been all that bad?

In short, though Manchester's writing is excellent and informative, I prefer my non-fiction reading to be a little less judgmental, and a little less preachy.

Apr 13, 2011

Stories from the Vinyl Cafe, by Stuart McLean

I received this book as part of the Reddit Secret Santa in which I participate, and I am very pleasantly surprised. The author is Canadian and, from what I can gather, has a radio show called "The Vinyl Cafe." I'm not sure whether these particular stories were part of his radio show, or whether they were originally meant for print. Most of the stories revolve around the same person, Dave, though there are some other main characters we meet. The writing is simple, but not sparse or terse. It's an incredibly easy book to read; I finished it in four days. Reading the stories is a bit like peeking into someone's diary: we get to hear what the character's subconsciences are really feeling, and there is no id filter. The stories revolve around peripheral events that are important, but mostly are about how the little things accumulate to create the sum of a life, or a person. I would definitely read more of McLean's writing.

Apr 11, 2011

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt

This book, while well-written and generally quite enjoyable, is probably about 100 pages too long. The story is refreshingly original, the world is extremely detailed and well thought out, the characters are believable and relatable, and over all, I had fun trying to piece it all together along with the characters. However, around the last fifth of the book, the writing starts to get rather staid, and feels almost tired. That being said, I have an incredible amount of respect for authors who delve into something that is entirely new. The world in which Amelia Harsh lives is vaguely similar to our own, and seems as though it could be modeled on a far distant future Earth. Religion and science intermingle comfortably; both are quite real and quite powerful. But the motivations remain wholly human: greed, regret, longing, nostalgia. Hunt is a master at creating worlds, he just needs an editor with a bit of a heavier hand. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

Mar 24, 2011

Last Battle of the Icemark, by Stuart Hill

This is the third book of a trilogy that I started out absolutely in love with. I am very sad to say, however, that the second book was merely okay, and this last was downright bad. I was incredibly disappointed. Either Hill's writing has genuinely gotten worse since the first book (which was also his first published book), or the success of the series led his publisher to forget the whole editing part.

The plot is pretty good, but the writing is beyond contrived. I would very much like to know how many times he uses the word "hideous;" my bet is somewhere in the mid-hundreds. Some of the characters' dialogue is realistic, others' sounds incredibly forced. Medea, the antagonist, sounds exactly like the author himself, and also uses/thinks the word "hideous" far more than is necessary.

The lack of originality in setting also starts to wear in this third installment. Yes, it was very clear in the first book that Hill was using Celts and Romans as his basis, but in this third it is painfully obvious. The main road of "Romula" is the "Eppian Way." Just like how the main road of Rome was the Apian Way. If this were meant as a fictionalization of the fall of Rome, it would be understandable, but at least from what I can tell, that's not Hill's intention.

It saddens me that an author with such potential at the start seems to have already run out of steam, but I will keep my fingers crossed that his next endeavor is a little more original and rather less staid.

Mar 18, 2011

Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert

What a wonderful book! True, the eponymous protagonist is a detestable woman, but what fantastic writing! I very much want to read the book in its original French, but I do feel that the version I read was an excellent translation. There are, of course, the expected dated colloquialisms, but I still feel that such writing easily holds its own among today's literature. Even more, I feel that its theme is relevant to today's issues of romance and expectations. Recently, there have been essays and the like that comment on how modern romantic films portray love, and the cult of "Prince Charming." This, it is argued, has lead a generation of women to develop unnaturally high expectations of love, and when they don't achieve them, to disillusionment.

As Madame Bovary proves, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Women and men alike have always engaged in romantic fantasies, and literature throughout the ages has both fed off of and promoted them. Can we really say that Tristan and Isolde, or Romeo and Juliet, have not presented idealized versions of romance and love to the masses? Of course they have. Madame Bovary is just one more casualty in a long history of the war against expectation.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and can't wait to try out the original French. I'd absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for classic literature but is afraid of the stuffy, verbose stereotype.

Mar 8, 2011

Sandry's Book, by Tamora Pierce

This is my favorite young adult fiction author, but when I read this series many years ago, it didn't appeal to me like her other books did. This series takes place in a different world from the Song of the Lioness books, and the characters are rather more juvenile. I did, however, like it better this second time than I did when I read it long ago. Her writing is still approachable and engaging, and the world she created is interesting and full. I still don't like how juvenile the characters are, but then they are all about 9 or 10, whereas Alanna started out as 11 in the Lioness series. I will read the other books, to see if they get better, since I love Pierce so much. I'd probably start a young reader on these before introducing them to the Lioness books.

Mar 4, 2011

Fluke, by Christopher Moore

I really love Christopher Moore's writing. He has a true sense of irreverence and a similar sense of humor to Larry Niven, though his books are much more far-fetched/fantastical. This one is about whales, and gets weird right around the time when Nate, the main character, sees a whale with the words "BITE ME" written on its flukes.

Compared to Fool, another book of his that I've read, Fluke is rather tame in terms of vulgarity. It's good to know, though, that Moore can still write a damn good novel without having to resort to shock value. I'm incredibly excited to read more of his stuff, and have a feeling he might turn into one of my favorite authors.

Feb 26, 2011

A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton

I got about a hundred pages into this book before realizing that I really didn't want to read it. Hamilton's writing is good, very good, and I did enjoy her skill in describing the midwestern summer. But the subject matter was simply too much for me. Reading is my form of escapism, that's why I love fantasy and science fiction so much. So to read about such horrible things as babies drowning and accusations of sexual abuse from an entire community is really not my idea of enjoyment. It's a shame, really, since I did like her writing, but I read in order to escape the insanity and evil of the real world, and have no desire to spend my free time reading about such things in fiction.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne

I made a promise to myself about a year ago that I would start reading classic science fiction, and this book did not disappoint. The prose is dated, to be sure, but the grounding of the plot in hard science is something I appreciate in all science fiction. The journey is, indeed, incredible, and it was a joy to read. I did feel sorry for poor Henry, forced by an overbearing uncle to endure amazing hardship simply for prestige and glory. My one complaint with the book is how anticlimactic it is. Do they ever really reach the center of the earth? It seems as though Verne had a pre-set page limit, wrote volumes about the journey, and then suddenly found himself with only ten more pages allowed. In the end, of course, the book is not about the actual center of the earth, but rather the journey towards it. I very much look forward to reading more of Verne's fantastic voyages.

Feb 18, 2011

Limits, by Larry Niven

Once again, I turn to my trusted favorite science fiction author, Larry Niven, and am not disappointed. Limits is an interesting collection of short stories; some are fantasy and some are science fiction. I quite enjoyed reading the fantasy stories because I have never read any fantasy by Niven. In fact, I didn't even know he'd written any. I was a little surprised when I started reading the first story and realized it wasn't actually sci fi, since one of my favorite parts of Niven's writing is how scientifically and mathematically sound it is. He was a professor of mathematics, so all his sci fi is firmly grounded in science. It adds a distinct note of realism to what would otherwise seem fantastical.

The lack of science or math in his fantasy does not seem to hinder his writing at all. The worlds he creates in fantasy are, as are his sci fi worlds, palpably real. They are thought out, complete, with histories and cultures. Reading Niven is so easy for me, I can fall right into his writing, despite its often technical subject matter. Once again, another Niven book to keep on my shelf.

Feb 13, 2011

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

This is quality young adult fiction. The writing is good, though not fantastic, the characters are real and engaging, and the story is linear but well thought out. Graceling is the story if Katsa, a king's niece Graced with killing. In this world, children who's eyes settle into two different colors are Graced: some with dance, swimming, fighting, mind reading, seeing, among various other characteristics. Anything can be a Grace, and some are more useful than others. Of the seven kingdoms, six hold Gracelings apart from society; they are shunned if their Grace is considered useless, and given over to the king if they are useful.

The story follows Katsa and another Graceling, Po, on their journey to discover the reason behind the kidnapping of Po's grandfather, a prince of Lienid. The details behind the kidnapping are rather horrific, and I do question whether the subject matter is entirely appropriate for young readers. The accusation is never explicitly made, but is clear enough, and disturbing enough to bother most readers, regardless of their age.

That being said, I do believe that young adult fiction should not be whitewashed. Young people think just as dark thoughts as adults, and deserve to have a genre that doesn't shy away from that. When that is added to a good story, and a good writing style, you get a truly enjoyable book. I'll definitely be hanging onto this one.

Feb 11, 2011

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

It is only by sheer coincidence that I chose to reread Redwall for the first time since my childhood mere days before Brian Jacques passed away. I remember going through these books like candy, reading them voraciously one after the other. As for many other children, the Redwall series was an integral part of my childhood.

That being said, I must admit that the book does not now live up to my memory of it. There are many young adult books that have translated well into my adulthood, but this is not one of them. The story is simplistic, though engaging. The characters are really more caricatures than characters, with little depth to their emotions. The jokes at which the characters laugh uproariously are barely funny. And there seems to be almost a sense of stereotype and prejudice throughout the book: mice, shrews, moles are good; rats, weasels, ferrets are invariably evil creatures. The only change that occurs is in the sparrow character.

I will be keeping Redwall, and if I have any children, will read it with them, but I don't think I'll be reading it again for myself.

Feb 4, 2011

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Though I still love Stephenson's writing, I must admit that I did not enjoy this book as much as his others that I have read. My best guess as to why is that the half of the book set in the present time just don't appeal to my imagination. I loved the parts set during World War II, but the present parts just weren't as engaging. Granted, this could be because of the insane amount of techno-babble, but then I was perfectly fine with the mathematical and scientific discourse in The System of the World and Anathem. I once again come to the conclusion that I prefer cultures that are inherently different from my own. This is why I love medieval history but am bored by American history, and why I enjoy reading science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction more often than modern fiction. Reading is a form of escapism for me, and it is very difficult to escape into something that looks exactly like the world in which I already live.

That being said, I did enjoy this book, and still consider Stephenson to be one of our most talented contemporary authors. I am, however, glad that I read The System of the World first, since I don't know that I would have read it had I read Cryptonomicon first.

Jan 7, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

This is really an incredible book, though I did get a bit frustrated with some of the stylistic choices. Potok is an evocative author, and I was impressed by his knowledge of artistic movements and terminology. What frustrated me was the silence of the main character, Asher. Though the book is written in first person, I still got the sense of a muted voice. He was narrating the things that were happening to him, but it was almost without emotion. Perhaps this was intentional, a way of expressing Asher's emotional repression by the people and religion he loved.

The book is set against the background of post-WWII Brooklyn, a world in which the wounds of the Holocaust are still agonizingly fresh. Asher's father travels around the world, opening yeshivas and connecting Jews to each other again. Asher and his mother are left behind to wait, and as Asher's artistic talent blossoms, his mother becomes caught in a tug of war between father and son. The big question of the novel is whether the individual is more obligated to himself, or to his people, particularly when his people is downtrodden and oppressed. Asher never answers this question, choosing, I believe, to try and straddle both worlds. Whether he has made the right decision is up to the reader.

Jan 3, 2011

The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley

This book was recommended to me based on my love of Tamora Pierce, and, for the most part, it did not disappoint. Young Harry, a tall, athletic, intelligent girl, is shipped off to join her brother at a border outpost after the death of their father. She soon falls in love with the desert in which she finds herself, and finds herself an increasingly important part of the culture of the natives there. There is magic, swordfights, warhorses, and the omnipresent threat from the North; everything a good coming of age book for the young tom boy requires.

The writing is generally very good, readable and engaging, perhaps a bit more sophisticated than Pierce's writing. My only complaint was the odd chronological structure, which could have used an editor's heavy hand. The pattern seems to be that a section/chapter starts out with "Two days later...", then bends back around to describe what happened in those two days. It would have made far more sense to just write the story in the correct order without these random future-past asides. Section breaks could also have been used more liberally, as sometimes paragraphs do not flow into each other altogether naturally.

But in general, I very much enjoyed this book, and will keep it in my permanent collection for future rereadings.