Dec 26, 2012

The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes

I've said many a time before that I highly value originality. This little gem of a fantasy book really fits that bill, and I'm delighted by Hughes' unique ideas. The unlikely protagonist of this novel is Chesney, an actuary who probably suffers from Aspergur's syndrome and an incredibly overbearing, Christian mother. He accidentally summons a demon whilst building a pool table, and his refusal to sell his soul to the Devil causes the denizens of Hell to go on strike. Throw in a couple of pretty, snarky women, some old white men who want to rule the world, and a demon who talks like Al Capone, and you get a genuinely fun, interesting, unique book. The editing is a little off; I noticed several instances of misplaced or missing quotation marks. But aside from that, I really enjoyed this little-known fantasy book, and would happily read more of Hughes' work.

Dec 24, 2012

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

I know, I know, another Pratchett book...I can't help that I love reading his dry, British humor! This example is just as good as the others, though I noticed several printing and editing errors, which I hadn't in any of his previous books. This one is about a crook who goes clean and is made head of the Bank of Ankh-Morpork, charged with revitalizing the institution and helping the city. The characters are fantastic, the plot delicious, and Pratchett's writing as enjoyable as it always is.

Dec 19, 2012

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

Readers and booksellers everywhere have raved about this book from the moment it came out, and I can see why. Obreht has the kind of lyrical narrative voice that only comes along once in a great while, and the fact that she wrote this book in her early twenties makes it all the more impressive. She is incredibly talented and has a background rich with inspiration, having grown up before the age of twelve in former Yugoslavia. "The Tiger's Wife" is a tale of wrenching separation, that of a nation from itself and a granddaughter from her grandfather, and the story of coming back together again, a kind of repatriation despite the seemingly insurmountable barriers of war and death.

The novel alternates between the present, just after Natalia's grandfather dies far from home and from causes kept secret; the tales he told Natalia of his occasional meetings with the deathless man; and Natalia piecing together the story of her grandfather's early life with the tiger's wife in his home village. The jumps in chronology can be a little disorienting, since Natalia tells her own story in a different voice from the story of the tiger's wife, but other than that, the writing is superb. Obreht has the talent I believe marks out truly great writers: the ability to speak truths that seem obvious upon reading, but have never really occurred to you previously, or have never been so well described. Combined with her beautiful descriptive writing, this makes for a fantastic first novel, and I cannot wait to see Obreht's future work.

Dec 13, 2012

Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, and Ghosts, ed. by Barbara H. Solomon and Eileen Panetta

Having now read twenty-five short stories and novel excerpts, I can safely conclude that horror stories just aren't my thing. There are some cool stories in here, and even a couple of funny ones by Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde, but in general the stories are melodramatic and overdone. These subject matters tend to elicit overwrought prose and far too heightened language, which instead of setting the reader on tenterhooks, only serves to take you out of the story and comment upon the slightly ridiculous narration. It's difficult, however, to think of how it could be otherwise. Supernaturally based movies are enjoyable because the visual is so strong and so clearly exemplifies The Other. Authors are faced with the challenge of trying to evoke a similarly strong response without any visual aids. I think that for myself, I will continue to rely on movies to get my horror fix, and stay away from the books.

Dec 3, 2012

Brokedown Palace, by Steven Brust

"Brokedown Palace" reads much more like a fable or fairy tale than a novel, which makes it an interesting curiosity, though I'm not sure it makes it any better of a book. Reading the novel, one gets a sense that the words are almost holding their breath; there is more they want to say, but Brust has left them to only scratch the surface of the story. The land of Fenario, its surrounding world and the mythology that supports i,t sounds really interesting, but we only get a hint of a taste of it, and skim across the top while great depths below are left undiscovered.

The writing is generally good, and its ephemeral quality is sustained throughout the book. There were two things that bothered me, though. First, the characters are almost caricatures of personality types. Each persone has a strictly defined personality with very little room for change and development. The people who fought hardest against the inevitable outcome end up killing themselves, rather than try to live with their new reality. People with ineffable sadness remain ineffably sad, even when they get what they want. This goes against the basic tenant of a fairy tale, wherein transformation is key. Second, the miniature fables in between each chapter of the book are quite amateurish. I like the idea of delving into the mythological history of the land, but the stories read (almost exactly) like stories I was writing when I was fifteen. Mythological fable is often simplistic, yes, but the forced, almost "countrified" voice they are written in is hokey and bizarre. So in the end, I appreciate what Brust was trying to create, and though he certainly achieved the right feeling, I'm not sure that accomplishment lead to a successful novel.

Nov 26, 2012

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson

The other Stephenson book this reminds me most of is "Cryptonomicon," which wasn't my favorite Stephenson read. I have a similar reaction to "REAMDE." It still has a good, healthy dose of the Stephenson humor I love so much, and the twists and turns of the plot keep you guessing, excited, and engaged. But it lacks the otherworldly quality of books like "Anathem" and the System of the World trilogy. This isn't sci fi, or historical, or even mildly fantastical: it's just fiction. Good fiction, but just plain old fiction.

I enjoyed reading it, though it took a couple hundred pages to get into; luckily, it's a massive 1042 pages in paperback. The writing is generally great, though I noticed a bit more description than was ever really necessary. In that respect, it reminded me almost of the Game of Thrones books, and Martin's tendency to over-describe. The characters are fantastic, though, and much of the book's merit rests on wanting to see what happens to them. It's a crazy, convoluted storyline, and I'm mightily impressed that Stephenson not only thought it up, but took it on. It just wish it had that little extra Stephenson oomph that makes his sci fi work so enthralling.

Nov 15, 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Knowing Bradbury only from "Fahrenheit 451," I was very surprised by this lyrical tale. Set in an indeterminate time (which feels like the '40s or '50s), this novel of love and death and youth and age takes place around the central focus of a traveling carnival, and two young boys named Jim and Will. The plot is not all that important, because the book reads like prose poetry. For example: "The train skimmed on softly, slithering, black pennants fluttering, black confetti lost on its own sick-sweet candy wind, down the hill, with the boys pursuing, the air so cold they ate ice cream with every breath." The entire book is like that, which makes is rather slow-going. Plot is obscured in language, rather than revealed by it. Even though it could be classified as horror and as such, has a properly climactic ending, its clear that the point isn't what happens at the end, but how we get there. Personally, I prefer a bit more balance between language and plot, so this book was difficult for me. I'm glad I read it, though, for it's clear that Bradbury is one of those people with the incomparable, magical gift of manipulating language, folding it into exactly what he wants.

Nov 11, 2012

A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

The fifth book of Martin's epic Song of Fire and Ice series exists (mostly) concurrently with the fourth, with the last two or three hundred pages resuming the chronology where the fourth had left off. Having read five of these books now, I am starting to grow a tad bit weary of Martin's most used writing techniques. There are two especially that have become more obvious as I read on. The first is his habit of starting a chapter in the present, then having the protagonist think back to the past as a means of explaining what has happened in the intervening time since we last walked with him or her. It's a clever device, but becomes rather transparent after one has read five thousand pages filled with it. The other aspect that has begun to bother me is the dialogue. Generally, it's very well done, but every once in a while a character will speak words that are much more Martin's than the character's. Even in this fantasy world, where old ghosts and legends are still strong, people just don't talk like writers write. At times it becomes a bit too flowery and poetic, and it thrusts the reader out of the story.

Other than those two complaints - for which I am glad I will have to wait a while yet for the next installment, so I can wash their taste out of my mouth - this is still a fascinating tale, filled with interesting, personable characters, and generally written very well. I can only hope that Martin doesn't take too long writing the sixth book, so that I don't have to go back and read the fifth all over again so I can remember the complexities of his world.

Oct 29, 2012

Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

I can't help it, I love everything Pratchett writes. Sometimes, you really need a little humor in your life, and I know I can always count on Pratchett's books to make me laugh out loud. He's just so delectably British, and so irreverently original. His books are actually basic mysteries, but nearly unrecognizable as such due to being wrapped in a thick candy coating of fantasy. Only someone as smart as Pratchett can make surprisingly intelligent humor so effortlessly fun. His books provide a very welcome respite from the more "serious" literature I sometimes read, and I always pick them up with great expectation and glee.

Oct 26, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This is not an easy book to read, but it sure as hell is a good one. Mitchell, of "Cloud Atlas" fame, pulls us into the world of turn of the century (19th Century, that is) Dejima, a small island off the coast of Japan near Nagasaki, the only patch of land on which the few permitted Dutch traders can live and work. Aside from this one outpost, Japan is a closed nation. The shogun two hundred years previously had outlawed interaction with any foreigner, and Japan is just now beginning to open itself to new technologies and languages. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, there to enrich himself so he can return to Holland and marry the woman he loves. We follow several other characters, some Japanese and one Englishman, so that even though we skip around in time fairly frequently, the reader gets a full view of all the happenings.

I call this a difficult book to read not because of the writing, which is superb, but because of the subject matter and unflinching detail. Mitchell thrusts us into the story as a courtesan is giving birth to a baby who seems to be already dead, with only his arm sticking outside his mother's body. Mitchell continues this tenor throughout the book, and there are some parts one cannot read while eating, or even thinking about eating. You push through it, though, because Mitchell's writing is just so fantastic. Books like this are the reason I love reading so much: the language wraps itself around you, becomes almost a part of your mind as you read, and truths even the most dedicated philosopher expounds upon are put in simple, beautiful terms. This book absolutely makes me want to read everything Mitchell has and will write; he is truly a genuine talent.

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks

I picked this up in a hostel in Zurich despite its cheesy movie tie-in cover. I normally stay away from World War Whatever books, but this looked intriguing. I lucked out - "Birdsong" is a fantastic, engrossing novel about WWI.

Faulks includes an interesting introduction in which he describes his motivation and intentions with the book. His goal was to bring to light a largely glossed-over part of our past, one that is rarely addressed as it should be, often due to the extreme PTSD endured by the survivors. Faulks wanted to dig deep into the war, rather than continue the tradition of shying way from its horrors. He contrasts the graphic details of trench warfare with the graphic details of lust-fueled sexual passion. His point: sex and death are two sides of the same coin, both of which tend to be relegated to the liminal parts of our cultural and societal consciousness.

Why do we not remember? There is hardly anyone living who lived at that time, and certainly none (or extremely few) veterans. It is high time we address what happened to the men who fought and what it has done to humanity as a whole. Stephen, the protagonist, says he is curious to see how far man can be pushed, to what brutal, animal extremes he can go, before he can go no further, do no more. It is clear that limit has yet to be reached, not with the gas of WWI, nor the atom bomb of WWII, nor Agent Orange of Vietnam. As human civilization grows and develops, as we find new and ingenious ways to destroy each other, the bestial nature of humanity seems to find new depths to plumb. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in an effort to create a weapon so horrific that war would cease, the limits of human cruelty having been reached; he failed. When, Faulks asks, will it end? When will we learn? And how do we stop?

The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge

I picked up this science fiction novel at the same hostel in Switzerland I mentioned before, and it was worlds better than its hokey '80s cover would indicate. The eponymous queen has ruled over Tiamat's Winter for a century and a half with the help of a youth-giving substance culled from the blood of a local sea creature. Fearful of what will become of her technologically backwards world when the all-powerful Hegemony departs for a hundred years and leaves the planet in technological darkness, Arienrhod creates a clone of herself, a perfect copy to take over when Arienrhod is ritually sacrificed to the sea. But Moon, her clone, is everything she wanted and nothing she expected, adn the complexities of her uncivilized world run far deeper than anyone has ever guessed.

Vinge's story and writing are superb, truly enthralling and imaginative. I'm surprised and saddened that I've never heard her name before, for if this one novel is any indication, she should be a common name in sci fi literature. I'm definitely going to try to find more of her work.

New Voices in Science Fiction, ed. by Mike Resnick

This compilation was published in 2003, and indeed, it includes a couple stories by authors who have gone on to hit it big in the science fiction community - Cory Doctorow, for example. Some of the stories are a bit trite and unoriginal, but others are quite good. The story "The Faithful" by Kage Baker is utterly brilliant, and I laughed out loud at the ending. I actually read it over again to better appreciate it. For a book I randomly picked up in a hostel in Switzerland, I was very pleased with this.

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Thus concludes the trilogy of The Lord of the rings, though it ends quite differently than in the movies. The movie, of course, ends (more or less) with the destruction of the Ring, but that event takes place only two-thirds of the way through the book. After, we travel with the hobbits to witness the crowning of Aragorn and the end, finally, of Saruman. I like that Tolkien gave such thought to the fact that life could not have possibly gone right back to normal after the destruction of the Ring; so many books end at the climax but give no space to the rebuilding that must come after. Tolkien's is a more complete method of storytelling, I believe.

The one major complaint I have with the series is the lack of attention given to women. There are only two women of any import in the entire story, and only one is human. Eowyn seems, on the outset, to be a rich character due to her desire to fight for her people as the men do, but this is later revealed as the emotional reaction of a spurned woman. Though she practically saves the day, she is soon relegated to the role of wife. All other great deeds are performed by males, though they often use tools given to them by women to complete their tasks. Woman's role is to inspire, but it's not enough to make one forget how few there are in the entire work.

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This second installment of The Lord of the Rings is broken up into two parts: the first two-thirds follows Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they seek out the hobbits Merry and Pippin, who star in their own sections. The last third follows Frodo and Sam as they make their way towards Mordor. I preferred the former, as the tale of Frodo and Sam's trek is gloomy and grave. Merry and Pippin at least are cheerful and wondrous, especially once they meet the Ents, and Aragorn's crew are noble and even a bit humorous at times.

Again, it's interesting to see how Peter Jackson translated the book into film and to note what liberties he took with the plot structure. For example, the battle for Helm's Deep takes up a small section in the middle of the book, whereas it is the massive climax of the movie. Another change of note is how much more intelligent Gollum is in the book. To be sure, he is insane and twisted, but he also seems to understand more and is much better at communicating. My guess is the changes Jackson made to his character were meant to make Gollum all the more loathsome. But I think we lose the sense that Gollum used to be Smeagol, and that he was once a creature much like Sam and Frodo, a point I think Tolkien wanted the reader to remember.

The Fellowship of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the third time I have attempted reading the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I'm happy to report that I was finally successful in reading it all the way through. I think my previous failures were due to the age at which I tried reading it. When I was younger, I read because I wanted to know what happened; I was much more interested in plot than the writing itself. Now that I am older and have matured as a reader, I can sit back and enjoy the words, as well as the story they convey.

It's still a slow read; the tale meanders and stutters. It is much like a classical epic that way - the object isn't so much the outcome but how it is reached. Like Odysseus, Frodo Baggins is an unwilling hero in his own tale, but he does what he must to reach the end.

I must admit to having seen the Hollywood versions of the trilogy, and the book tends to pale in comparison. I'm sure that, in large part, this is due to my own preconceived notions. I have the movie running through my head as I read, so spectacular and larger than life, that it makes the book seem not quite grand enough. I do wish I had had the chance to read the books before seeing the movies, as I'm sure I would read them with different eyes.

That being said, the tale is grand and much fun to follow, and Tolkien's voice is skillful and alluring. I look forward to continuing the journey.

Sep 13, 2012

A Feast for Crows, by George R. R. Martin

And so I read the fourth book in the Song of Fire and Ice series. As I'd been told by others, this is the weakest of the series so far. This isn't because of the writing, but because we're only getting half of the story. Martin's fifth book is a companion to the fourth, rather than a sequel, and tells the tales of the main characters we are missing. It appears that Martin's world outgrew him, and such is the problem with an undertaking as massive as this. Like the Wheel of Time series, the world has exceeded the author's grasp, and become a bit unwieldy. However, I think Martin is a better writer than Jordan (and Jordan's successor), so even though the fourth was a little weaker than the others, I haven't grown bored like I did with Jordan's series. I look forward to continuing the journey.

Sep 4, 2012

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore

This is Cashore's third book, a sequel to "Graceling" and companion to "Fire," and it does not disappoint. I am exceedingly pleased that Cashore's writing has only gotten better with each additional book. She weaves a tale so enthralling, with such endearing characters, that this newest book was incredibly difficult to put down. This installment of the series follows Queen Bitterblue, the young daughter of the frighteningly evil King Leck of Monsea, as she tries to unravel the puzzles and lies behind her own administration.

The part of Cashore's writing I love most of all is her willingness to delve deeply into topics that many others would consider too dark for younger readers. She doesn't dwell on them, though, making you suffer along with the maudlin ramblings of a troubled adolescent, as some young adult authors do, but instead tempers the horrible things with those that are truly beautiful. As the truth about Leck's rule becomes apparent, Cashore makes sure you feel the pain he caused without overdoing it. I simply love her books, and I cannot wait to read more of them the moment they are published.

Sep 2, 2012

A Princess of Landover, by Terry Brooks

I've been wanting to try out Terry Brooks, having heard very good things about his writing, but of course the book I end up reading is the very last book in his collection of Landover novels. Be that as it may, it was a good, fun read, and it would be fun to start from the beginning. Brooks has a slightly British sense of humor, which I like. His characters are nuanced and believable, more so than in many other fantasy novels. I will say that I didn't enjoy it as much as Terry Pratchett, and their work runs in similar veins. Still, the book was fun, lively, scary when it needed to be, and an over-all good read.

Aug 29, 2012

A Beautiful Friendship, by David Weber

It's rare to find truly hard science fiction written for a young adult audience, but this book is precisely that. Several centuries after humans have colonized the stars, Stephanie Harrington finds herself on a frontier planet, bored out of her incredibly intelligent mind. Though humans have lived on Sphinx for about fifty years, no one has even guessed at the existence of a native sentient species, not to mention one that loves celery! Stephanie manages to meet one named Climbs Quickly, and though they cannot communicate with each other, they share a deep empathic bond. And once the treecats are discovered, Stephanie and her family and friends must do the best they can to protect them.

There's probably a bit more explanation of scientific and political ideas than I would like, but this book does make for a very good introduction to the hard sci fi genre. Precocious teenagers will definitely identify with Stephanie, and the issues put forth in the book are ones that deserve real thought. It's the first book in a series, and while I don't know that I'll read any more of it, I would definitely recommend this to young adult readers.

Aug 26, 2012

Hide Me Among the Graves, by Tim Powers

Poetry, vampires, ghosts, prostitutes, Boadicea, Italians, Christians, and love: these are just a few of the things that make up the bizarre hodge-podge that is "Hide Me Among the Graves." The writing isn't bad, per se, in fact it's pretty good. I just can't figure out how on earth Powers thought up the story. The two main characters among a larger cast of protagonists are Edwardian poet Christina Rosetti and veterinarian surgeon John Crawford. The vampires aren't familiar to us at all, beyond their aversion to sunlight and garlic, and they are horrifying creatures that the director of Pan's Labyrinth would probably be jealous of. The book is probably twice as long as it should be - the day is saved and then lost about three or four times each - and the oddness of it is just so overwhelming that it distracts from the writing talents of Powers. At one point, someone is bitten, turns into a vampire, drowns himself, and then is saved by the ghosts of several cats. WHAT?! I've read a lot of strange books, given my proclivity towards science fiction, but this one takes the cake. It's too much, and too long, and does no justice to its author. What a shame.

Aug 22, 2012

Trickster's Queen, by Tamora Pierce

I periodically like to return to my favorite young adult fantasy author, Tamora Pierce, and it is always such a great pleasure. This is the sequel to "Trickster's Choice," a novel about Aly, the daughter of Pierce's first wonderful protagonist, Alanna of Trebond. Aly is just like her father, one of Tortall's spymasters, and she uses her skills and knowledge to great effect in the Kyprish Isles, trying to win back the country for the native raka and their cunning god, the Trickster. The plot is great fun and fast-moving, the characters are wonderful to follow, and Pierce's writing is, as usual, light, funny, and moving. I never tire of reading and rereading her books, and I hope she never stops writing them.

Aug 18, 2012

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

I have heard nothing but great things about this book, and I was not disappointed. A beautifully surrealistic novel, "The Night Circus" is about two magicians trapped in a competition that takes place inside the venue of a traveling nighttime circus. The chapters go back and forth in time, so we have a good sense of tension and foreboding throughout the book, without it becoming annoying or unbearable. The characters are subtle and lively, and Morgenstern's writing is original and lovely. I don't want to say too much about the plot because it is best discovered for oneself, and it is well worth discovering. What is even more impressive is that this is Morgenstern's first book, though it seems much more polished than many first attempts are, and I greatly look forward to reading her work in the future.

Aug 12, 2012

A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

Major kudos to Tom King for trying out something completely different; I'm just not convinced it worked. "A Once Crowded Sky" is essentially a meta-comic book. Stories within stories within stories, the novel is part gruesome action movie, part philosophical tract. It was clearly written by a man who love comic books, and who maybe is a little too smart for his own good. The topic is undoubtedly fascinating: what do comic books - with their unrealistic protagonists and simplistic depictions of good vs. evil - tell us about ourselves? King could have gone one of two ways with this: novelization and subtle discovery, or philosophical discussion. Instead, he does both, and the result is a bit of a mish-mash. Readers interested in the moral and religious implications of comic book worship will be put off by the action parts, which often last for pages; and readers wanting simply another comic book in novel form will be bored by the philosophical ramblings. What started as a fantastic idea with a great deal of imagination behind it becomes instead a lengthy exercise in determination.

Like I said, though, I appreciate King's effort to create something new. So many books seem to be endless reiterations on the same themes with the same language and the same plot. "A Once Crowded Sky" is anything but, and as such it's a welcome addition to modern science fiction. I just think it could have used a more heavy-handed editor to help steer King in one direction or another in order to create a more coherent finished work.

Aug 7, 2012

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, by Ben Loory

Many people don't like short stories, but I have always had a particular fondness for them. I believe that it takes an incredible amount of skill to craft a really good short story, not necessarily any more so than with a full-length novel, but certainly of an entirely different breed. A successful short story will often leave you breathless, as it can pack an emotional wallop that novels sometimes lack. A good short story can lay bare a writer's soul in a way that longer books sometimes cannot, because their core is wrapped in layers of plot and nuance.

Ben Loory's stories are more fables and fairy tales than anything else, and they are incredibly powerful. Absurd and surreal, they all point to our intrinsic nature and the vicissitudes of humanity. Chief among his motifs is the person who becomes utterly enthralled or wrapped up in one single thing - an idea, person, object - that it consumes them; it is only when that thing is gone, either taken or destroyed or set free, that the person realizes s/he has been missing out on the loveliness of real life. This shows how we can become so wrapped up in our own dramas that we forget to enjoy life for what it is, and sometimes when we realize that, it is too late.

These are not easy stories to read, tiny though they are, and that's what makes them such brilliant gems.

Aug 2, 2012

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

And the deaths just keep on coming...Martin's third installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series (one can almost call it an omnibus at this point) delivers more of what readers have come to expect from him. There are still plenty of terrible people doing horrible things to good people, but in this book, at least some of the latter get to take vengeance out upon the former. Arya, Jon, and Tyrion remain the most captivating characters, and there are some deaths that are truly surprising. Martin's writing remains fluid and engaging, though I am starting to tire of his incredibly detailed descriptions, something many readers have come to lovingly mock. As lengthy as these books are, they are rarely ponderous and never boring, and I look forward to continuing the series.

Jul 18, 2012

The Arabian Nights

Also known as "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," this collection of Muslim tales is well known across the world, albeit in many different forms. Husain Haddawy, the translator of this version, includes a fascinating history of the tales and their various translations and compilations. There is no one perfect manuscript, but this translation is based on Muhsin Mahdi's edited Arabic version of a 14th Century manuscript that Haddawy considers to be the most faithful to the original stories. It's understandable that problems of inclusion and translation would arise, since they are written versions of originally oral tales. What results is a rich world into which we dive with Shahrazad as she tries to save the women of her country by telling the king a little part of a larger story each night. Admittedly, after a time, the colloquialisms start to sound trite, but so would anything repeated so many times. Truly, these touching, amazing, and weird stories were a great pleasure to read, and one can easily imagine a group of people, young and old, gathering around a storyteller to hear these fabulous tales. What a treasure, that we are able to enjoy them still.

Jul 9, 2012

Fire, by Kristin Cashore

This is only Cashore's second book, but damn, the lady can write. As I've said many times before, young adult fantasy gets very short shrift, and it's books like this that help dispel the stigma of YA. Fire is the companion novel to Cashore's first book, Graceling. It takes place a bit before Katsa's time (the protagonist of Graceling) in the kingdom of The Dells, in which monsters reside. Monsters are brightly furred/feathered/haired creatures of any kind of animal. They are especially intelligent, fierce and dangerous, and the human monsters are no different. There is only one living in The Dells, Fire (so named for her incredibly colored hair), who is both blessed and afflicted with extreme beauty, the gift of controlling others' minds, and a polarizing effect on people who have not learned to protect their minds from her. She wants nothing more than to be left alone to play her music and live her life, but her nature gets her pulled into the volatile politics of a nation on the brink of civil war.

Cashore's writing is astonishing. While many children's authors shy away from or circle around difficult tactics, or come at them in strange sideways manners, Cashore jumps into them. Her humor and description is biting and fresh, never dull or repetitive. Her characters are beautifully flawed and the story is so easy to fall into. It took me two days to read this wonderful book, and I cannot wait to read Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling.

Jul 5, 2012

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin

This is the second installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series, and, like the first, it does not disappoint. There's a bit less of the "horrible people doing horrible things" vibe, or perhaps I'm just becoming used to it. As the kingdom crumbles, so do various character's senses of righteousness, and the line between good and evil is starting to blur. We don't get quite enough of the best characters, Jon and Arya, but this is understandable since their stories are more liminal to the action. I must admit to being more interested in the strangeness occurring north of the Wall, but it's clear the Martin is saving up something spectacular to really throw a monkey wrench into things. Again, his writing is fantastic, though heavy on description (as has been noted by many others), and I look forward to continuing the journey.

Jun 22, 2012

The Draco Tavern, by Larry Niven

The Draco Tavern is an interspecies bar and restaurant, sited at the point of landing and departure of interstellar travel, funded by the Chirps (who own the galaxy) and owned by Rick Schumann. What the Tavern really is, is Niven's playground of the mind. It is a meeting place for philosophies, sciences, ideologies, ideas, beliefs, and customs. It is an attempt to show how limited our own viewpoint is in scope, due to the fact that we are all humans, having been born on Planet Earth. These many short stories raise questions only - there are no answers - and they are delivered with Niven's customary intelligence and wit. A must for any Niven fan, but probably not the work I would first suggest to someone who hasn't read Niven yet.

Jun 21, 2012

Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

It seems as though you can't throw a stick these days without hitting someone who has read Game of Thrones (or seen the TV show). Popularity does not necessarily equate to quality, as the "50 Shades of Grey" phenomenon makes obvious, but enough readers I respect had told me it was amazing that I was quite looking forward to it. Martin did not disappoint. He's a beautiful writer, a little wordy, yes, but very good with descriptions and emotions. His characters are easily believable and a pleasure to read.

The only problem I have with the book is existential. It's difficult for me to read about despicable people doing horrible things to good people, even when they're not real. It makes my sense of righteous indignation ignite, and there are some books I simply cannot read because of how horrible the characters were. Luckily, Game of Thrones has enough going for it, and enough decent (or at least partly so) characters that the horrible ones are less of an emotional burden, and I can honestly say that I cannot wait to read the rest of the series.

Jun 17, 2012

A Natural History of the Piano, by Stuart Isacoff

Isacoff gives us a history of the instrument as well as its most renowned composers and performers, and describes how the piano became such a long-lasting cultural phenomenon. As an amateur pianist myself, it was quite interesting to read about the piano's sometimes bizarre history, and Isacoff writes with sincere admiration for the incredible people who made the instrument what it is today. His writing is fast-paced and engaging, and his enthusiasm is infective. The only drawback is the awkward structure of the book. Interspersed every other page or so are secondary sections describing oddities, or extracts from others regarding the current topic. While these sections are fun and enlightening, their physical placement breaks up the flow of the main text, and they are long enough (most are a little less than a full page) to make you forget what you had been reading about before. I'm not entirely sure why this structure was chosen, as it makes the book somewhat like a textbook; but it is not so bad that it detracts too much from the book as a whole.

Jun 7, 2012

Advent, by James Treadwell

My boss gave me an advance reading copy of this book, and the blurb on the back makes it sound positively silly. I can now assure you, it is most certainly not that. Rather, it's an extremely well-written, hauntingly beautiful tale about the beginning of the end of the world. The novel starts benignly enough, with a 15-year-old Gavin feeling very much alone and different (and what teenager doesn't?) Things quickly devolve into true weirdness when it becomes clear that Gavin sees things others don't, though they are just as real as he is. We follow Gav on his trip to the coast of England, an estate called Pendurra where his aunt (and only beloved relative) is the caretaker. But Auntie Gwen isn't there, and it slowly becomes obvious that Pendurra is weird, weird in the same way Gavin is. Alongside this story, we also follow the tale of Johann Faust, that infamous magician who, supposedly, sold his soul to the devil.

The beauty of the language of this book is remarkable; many passages are more poetry than prose, almost reminiscent of W. B. Yeats, but not in an overwhelming way. The magical creatures of Pendurra and Faust are sublimely haunting and tantalizingly real. This really is a treasure of writing, and I'm quite happy that it's apparently part of a larger series. I just wish the title were a little less silly and more evocative of the tone of the novel. I fear that the title and blurb won't interest people, and that is a true shame as they will miss out on a wonderful read.

Jun 2, 2012

Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is very funny, and very British, and very good. This is the second book of his I've read, and though it wasn't quite as uproarious as the last, it makes up for it in philosophical depth. We follow Teppic, the son and heir of the king/god of the Old Kingdom, a desert country that has a fatal obsession with pyramids. These pyramids end up wreaking havoc upon the space-time continuum, and it's up to Teppic to set things right. Pratchett presents this novel with characteristic intelligence and wit, as epitomized in this passage:
"It's not for nothing that advanced mathematics tends to be invented in hot countries. It's because of the morphic resonance of all the camels, who have that disdainful expression and famous curled lip as a natural result of an ability to do quadratic equations." My, do I love the British...

Jun 1, 2012

The Downhill Lie, by Carl Hiaasen

This is not a book that any non-golfer would even remotely be able to understand, but those of us who do golf understand it all too well, and empathize deeply with Hiaasen's plight. This little book is the journal of Hiaasen's return to golf after thirty-five years, and it is quite a bumpy one. He plunges into the game, buying club after expensive club and gadget after useless gadget in the hopes that he can become a consistently decent player. Don't we all... His friends encourage him, yet sometimes can't help but laugh at his well-intentioned and disastrous play. He takes lessons from championship teachers, but nothing seems to help. He can't seem to get into the groove of things and take golf for what it's supposed to be: a game. With characteristic Hiaasen dry humor he recounts every shanked and pulled and sliced stroke; it is, admittedly, a bit like my father's own daily recital of his golf game, and can get to be a little much. The humor, though, and especially the parts where Hiaasen describes his young son's joy at the game as well as his own joy at getting to spend time with him, make it worth while.

May 30, 2012

2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This isn't so much a book as it is an epic undertaking, both to read and certainly to have written. This is hard science fiction at its most pure: everything from terraforming to human anatomy to politics is based soundly in real science, and, as is true with all good science fiction, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between Robinson's ideas and ideas he may have consulted with other scientists on. It's an incredible piece of work, while simultaneously being profoundly odd.

2312 takes place all over the solar system, but mostly on Mercury, Earth, and Venus. We follow two main characters, Swan and Wahram, and two supporting characters, Kiran and Inspector Genette. The driving force behind the plot is that there is something going on with the qubes, quantum computers that have largely taken over all the technical aspects of life. People have died, and the Inspector and Wahram, along with others in their group, are trying to find out why. Interlaced with this plot (which is vastly more complex than my own summary) are lists and extracts. These help to explain the science behind the changes Robinson has selected for this future, but also serve as a major distraction to the reader. I understand their use, and many of them are interesting, but they fracture the novel in such as way as to make this a seriously difficult read. Any reader who's main focus is plot will lose interest fairly early on, as one must persevere through some truly challenging and bizarre ideas. An argument can absolutely be made that this is what books, and science fiction in particular, are supposed to do, but the average sci fi reader will probably not make it through the entire novel. And this is a shame, as it really is a fascinating look into the future of humanity, and it's clear that Robinson worked extremely hard on it.

EDIT: I just got back from an event featuring Robinson and this work, and I have to say that I wish I had read the book after the event and not before. Robinson's reading of his novel showed that it is imbued with a certain sense of humor that I had only caught tiny glimpses of while reading. As I myself had concluded, and as Robinson confirmed, it is, at heart, a love story, and this lightens the feel of the book dramatically. Knowing these things now, I would have read 2312 as less of an undertaking, though it is still highly detailed and intellectual (and Robinson proved to be one of the smartest people I've heard speak).

May 22, 2012

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson

I tend to shy away from coming of age books involving drugs, mostly because I have little desire to read about someone else's messed up life. I'm incredibly glad I lifted this ban in order to read this fantastic novel. Henderson is the kind of writer you would imagine other writers being jealous of. Over and over again I read the sentence, "A vagina was a thing he had squeezed bloodily out of before being given away." Writers like Henderson leave me enthralled with language, with the enormity and immense beauty of what we can create out of merely 26 letters and a few rules. I cannot think of any way in which this book could have been better. The characters are gut-churningly empathetic, the setting is real as flesh and blood. None of the main characters are particularly likable, but Henderson manages to not let that impede your sympathy towards them. As Jude, the protagonist, realizes at the end of the book, each has had his or her own particular heartbreaks, not one is exempt. I applaud Henderson's deft skill in fashioning this gem of a novel, even if I am a little bit envious.

May 20, 2012

The Demi-Monde: Winter, by Rod Rees

The first part of this science fiction novel is a bit rough; Rees dives right into the myriad proper nouns and acronyms that make up the computer simulation that is the Demi-Monde, and it's too much, too soon. Once we get past that initial awkward introduction, however, the novel opens up into something fantastic. The Demi-Monde was created to help train US soldiers in Asymmetrical Warfare, e.g. urban warfare, religious extremists, racial violence, etc. To this end, the Demi-Monde has four sectors, each with a very distinct racial, political, religious, and social milieu, all packed in very tightly. Populating this simulation are Dupes, incredibly accurate duplications of people from the Real World, mostly nonentities, but with a few key sociopaths mixed in to really get things going. Henry VIII, Reinhard Heydrich, Empress Wu, Trostky, Robespierre - these are examples of Dupes from history, and they're all running the show.

Into this mess the US military has thrown about 20 soldiers, who were promptly captured and are now being used as blood donors: due to a programming oversight, Demi-Mondians have no blood but need it to survive, whereas people from the Real World who enter the Demi-Monde DO have blood. These "Daemons" are captured and milked, creating a huge black market for blood. On top of that, the US president's daughter has been somehow lured into the Demi-Monde and taken hostage. If someone dies in the simulation, they remain a vegetable in the Real World, and obviously, this cannot happen to such an important personage. Only one person can save her: Ella Thomas, an 18-year-old, mixed race jazz singer, highly intelligent and highly adaptable. She's thrown into the Demi-Monde with her mission, and nothing else. As one might imagine, all hell ensues.

What fascinates me so much about this book is the sheer enormity of the idea Rees has come up with, without making it seem too big to be dealt with comfortably. Sociopaths aren't the easiest people to write about since they are so inimical to how "normal" people think and react, and Rees has done a good job of making these characters seem real enough to make the reader a little bit uncomfortable. The dialogue could be a little bit better, but all in all, it's an incredibly engaging story with very interesting characters, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.

May 13, 2012

The Tigress of Forli, by Elizabeth Lev

The name Catherine de Medici is one which lives in infamy: Catarina, though never especially powerful during her life, is still synonymous with strong, independent women throughout history. While she was certainly those things, Lev also reveals her to have been exceptionally brutal, not, certainly, for her time, but definitely for a woman. Catarina lived in 15th Century Italy, a period of internecine warfare and replete with some of the most infamous characters of all time: Machiavelli, Lucrezia Borgia (and the rest of her murderous family), the Medici family - these names are instantly recognizable to us now as paragons of cunning political intrigue and dastardly murders. Catarina fit right in. She was married at age 10 to the favorite nephew of the pope, a position which should have (and did occasionally), garner her immense wealth, power, and prestige. Instead, her inept husband was routinely concerned with only himself and short-term benefits, never focused, as Catarina always was, on the perpetuation of the family name. She bore him six children, five of them boys, before he was murdered by enraged retainers and his own populace. Catarina, on her own for the first time in her life, very quickly took command of her three fortresses and soon developed a reputation for no-nonsense cruelty when it came time to take revenge for her husband's death. Two subsequent marriages (both for love, incredibly for that time) produced two more children, and Catarina once again proved her mettle and capacity for bloody vengeance after her second husband's murder and the all-out assault on her holdings several years later. She ended her life in Florence, buried in a simple tomb within the walls of the Muratte convent she particularly loved. Lev's writing is fantastic. I was at first a little dismayed by the narrative focusing more on Catarina's surroundings than herself, but this is probably due to the lack of correspondence she produced due to her young age. As the book goes on, we relive Catarina's emotional, financial, and political ups and downs through prose that is enjoyable and incredibly engaging. The sieges and battles read like fiction, and the book at those times becomes impossible to put down. I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in, well, anything!

May 5, 2012

Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg

This novel reminds me a bit of Ivan Doig's writing: it is not plot or narrative driven, but rather pulled from the subtle emotions of its protagonists in a setting where the land itself is the main character. The Reverend and Mrs. MacKenzie are sent to the desolate isle of St. Kilda, the remotest inhabited island of the Hebrides, north of Scotland. The natives speak no English, only Gaelic, live in the same manner and huts in which their ancestors lived, and are - according to the Church of Scotland - stricken with pagan superstition. MacKenzie, full of unspeakable guilt from an incidence in his past, resolves to pull the natives out of the proverbial and literal muck and turn them into enlightened, eager Christians. His wife, young and pregnant upon their arrival and lacking any sense of purpose, is instantly, helplessly lonely. As the years go on and children are born and live or die, the MacKenzies grow further apart, one accepting the realities of life on St. Kilda, one railing against them.

This is a slow book; it requires patience and complete reading. It is not a book written so the reader can find out what happened, rather, it is meant to draw attention to the way in which nature eventually takes its own. The cycle of life on the island is inexorable, though the St. Kildans cannot survive without extra supplies brought to them from the mainland at least once a year. It is about the constant struggle between evolution and tradition, man and nature, life and death. Sixty percent of babies born on St. Kilda die within eight days, but the islanders are not embittered or hardened by this; they mourn each child that cannot survive and treat each other with a compassion that Rev. MacKenzie cannot seem to emulate, let alone understand.

There are times in the book when my eyes glazed over a bit, such as the detailed descriptions of how the St. Kildans climbed the cliffs or fished, but the overall beauty of the writing would always pull me back in. I am impressed with Altenberg's sophisticated prose, and would certainly read more of her work in the future.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, by Melanie Benjamin

This lovely book is a novelized, first-person account of the first forty or so years of the life of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, later known as Lavinia Warren. Vinnie, as she was known to family and friends, was born about twenty years before the Civil War in rural Massachusetts as a normally sized baby, but stopped growing when she was two. She was afflicted with proportional dwarfism, and never grew over two feet and eight inches. Intelligent and proper, Vinnie was a school teacher for a year before getting into show business, eventually forming a partnership and friendship with the famous P.T. Barnum, through whom she met her husband, Charles Stratton, also known as General Tom Thumb, who had the same medical condition. The couple was immensely popular due to their perfection in miniature and traveled around the world, meeting kings and queens and all the best society. It takes a bit to get used to Vinnie's voice (as interpreted by Benjamin), as she is a most proper 19th Century lady, but eventually the tone ceases to be distracting and we are pulled wholly into Vinnie's remarkable story. Benjamin did a great job of bringing a larger than life character (please pardon the play on words) into stunning realism, though she makes it clear in her afterword that though we have many of Vinnie's own writings, she addresses her emotions and feelings only rarely, so Benjamin took it upon herself to give Vinnie more depth of character. Despite the incredible circumstances, Vinnie's story is completely familiar: fear, love, and self-doubt are tropes common to all people, no matter their size or fame or fate. Vinnie spent nearly her entire life under a bright spotlight, yet remained surprisingly unknowable and aloof. With this novel, Benjamin has given her new life and a little more soul, and I was utterly charmed.

Apr 28, 2012

The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch

This is a murder mystery set in medieval Germany, which is not generally the type of book I go for. I have to give Potzsch major credit for describing the setting so well. I studied medieval history, and very few non-academic authors can really convey the world of medieval Europe. Potzsch does a fantastic job of bringing to life the completely different worldview that existed at that time. It seems hokey and contrived to us now to describe the average town as being as superstitious and blindly believing as Potzsch paints the townspeople of Schonberg, but they were. Devils and demons, witchcraft and spells were very real things to medieval Europeans, and even though the decidedly secular culprit is revealed at the end, this doesn't take away from the fact that witches were more than simple scapegoats. Potzsch does a great job of imbuing his characters with the credulous faith of their time. The plot was quite good as well, just the right amount of information to keep you guessing and involved in the mystery. What was rather lacking was the writing itself. It's difficult to say what the problem actually is since this is a work translated from German; is it Potzsch's writing, or clumsy translating? I can't say for sure since I obviously cannot compare it to the original, but the writing was a little bit cliched and trite. The hangman "grins" quite an awful lot, and the eponymous daughter has black eyes that are mentioned perhaps a bit too often. Despite the lackluster writing, the story is great, and I really must commend Potzsch for his portrayal of a surprisingly complex time.

Apr 25, 2012

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

This has been a widely lauded novel, and I can see why. Written by a surgeon, it was a bit too graphic and scientific for me at times, but the writing is quite moving and lovely. The novel follows the lives - in snapshots - of Marion and Shiva, identical twins born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun and a British surgeon. We begin with their tumultuous and bloody birth (a bit too bloody; I tried eating while reading it and completely lost my appetite). Thomas Stone, their father, had no idea their mother was even pregnant, and fails to save her life during the birth. Beyond distraught, Stone runs away from the Missing Hospital, leaving the twins to be raised by Hema, the hospital's gynecologist, and Ghosh, an internist who takes up surgical duties after Stone's departure. Soon, the twins are joined by a baby girl who's mother is a servant at Missing, and the three begin on the journey of life perpetually intertwined with one another. Shiva's actions affect Genet's, which affect Marion's, which affect Genet's, and so on and so forth. The story is heartbreaking and uplifting and everything in between, but slightly underwhelming. What makes this book worth reading is Verghese's writing. Yes, I could have done without the medical violence, but Verghese's description of Ethiopia is so beautiful and loving. Generally, I'm more interested in plot and what the characters have to say; in this novel, the narrative is the most important part. It's written from the first person perspective of Marion, and Verghese gives him a profound yet not overly navel-gazing voice. I can understand how this book has drawn in so many people.

Apr 20, 2012

Trickster's Choice, by Tamora Pierce

I picked this up again after being stranded at my parents' house without a book to read, though to say that's a bad thing would be a lie. As anyone who reads my blog knows, I absolutely love Tamora Pierce's books, and this is no exception. This is part of a duet, rather than her normal four-book series, that follows Aly, the daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, from the original Song of the Lioness series. Aly's life and skills are co-opted by the Trickster god, Kyprioth, to help return native rule to a group of islands that had been conquered by luarin (white foreigners) a few centuries ago. The raka (the natives) are downtrodden, second-class citizens. Aly is much more like George than Alanna: she wants to be a spy and is exceedingly good at it, but her parents won't let her. This is her chance to prove her worth to them, as well as change the fates of a people she slowly comes to respect and love. The book is fun and fast-paced, and I greatly look forward to rereading the second book soon.

Apr 15, 2012

The Watchers, by Jon Steele

The first three hundred pages of this book are pure mystery, which is not generally a genre I seek out, and then the rest is suddenly action-packed fantasy. The mood and pacing shift was rather jarring and could have been edited much better, but that is my most significant complaint about this book. Steele is a former photojournalist and documented more than his fair share of war; after becoming disheartened by it, he moved to Switzerland and wrote this book. His worldview of absolute good and absolute evil permeate the novel, and it's easy to see how that grew out of his prior work.

He's a pretty good writer, as well, though the dialogue was a little stilted. His characters tend to speak in exactly the same way throughout the 500+ pages, using the same turns of phrase and exclamations. People are a little more varied than that, so having Katherine, one of the three protagonists, say "geeze" at least once a page can get a little old. Steele's descriptive work is great, though, and he is at his best when dealing with the character called Marc Rochat.

Regarding the sudden switch from mystery to fantasy: I understand Steele wanting to keep the reader curious, but the first 3/4 of the book is so impenetrable that I nearly gave up on it. SOMETHING is going on, but neither the protagonists nor we have any idea what it may be, beyond its sinister nature. Then all of a sudden - for lack of a better phrase - shit starts hitting the fan like no one's business. All at once, we're told exactly what's happening and who everyone is, and the transition from utter darkness to full bright light is simply too much. Steele needed to leave us better clues earlier in the book so we could reach the conclusion on our own and so he wouldn't have to reveal quite so much all in one go. That, however, is an editor's job, not necessarily the first-time novelist's. Steele has clear talent as a writer, he just needs a little help on structure.

Apr 11, 2012

The Darkness That Comes Before, by R. Scott Baker

Baker has a PhD in philosophy, which is very impressive. Less impressive is the effect that has on his writing. Conversations are broken up by two pages of speculation by one of the conversing characters; every single character is awarded a depth of insight we usually hear only from the one or two protagonists; concepts that could be elucidated in, at most, a paragraph or two, are given entire sections of various chapters. One gets the sense when reading this book that there's an awful lot one could skip without missing anything important...and that's a big editing problem. It turns an otherwise interesting story into a plodding trial of perseverance. I finished the book only because once I reached the 300 page mark and the myriad main characters start converging, it finally got good.

The problem is that Baker feels as though he is trying to be the next Tolkein. The world is vast, the problems are vast (the coming of the Second Apocalypse, no less), the people are vast. Everything is so...big. But fiction, even fantasy, is generally more about the one or two people who operate within a smaller sphere to effect greater change. A mystical northerner who is called to a holy city halfway across the globe and must use a fantastically enormous gathering of crusaders to get there is simply too much.

Additionally, I take serious issue with Baker's portrayal of women. It's so easy to make women helpless and useless and hopeless and generally, all around, much aggrieved. It is more impressive to create a world in which women are their own enablers, and not simply used for sex. It's easy to make the main female character a whore and give her some deeply concealed strength and intelligence. It's been done before. A lot. Let's try something new and different: how about a world in which women are equal contenders, in which every single woman, from lowly slave up to empress, is not victimized for her body.

This could have been a much better book, if Baker hadn't stuck to such over-worn fantasy tropes. If the second book in this series happens to fall in my lap, sure, I'll read it. But I won't be seeking it out.

Apr 5, 2012

Bookstore, by Lynne Tillman

I was gifted this book a couple years ago but held off on reading it because it looked, well, rather dull. Now that I'm planning on opening my own bookstore, it seems the perfect bit of research. "Bookstore" is essentially a ghost-written autobiography of Books & Co., a famous independent bookstore that operated in New York for twenty years, and Jeanette Watson, its owner. Told mainly through the words of those who frequented, worked at, and loved Books & Co. with Jeanette's narration for structure, this is a lively remembrance of what increasingly seems to be a bygone era. Books & Co. was a place where writers and readers could mingle, and where all the writers were readers as well, where one could always find eccentric works by obscure authors that were always fantastic. The anecdotes are fun and intelligent, and this ended up being quite a good read.

For me, of course, the book serves as a reference on, to be honest, what NOT to do when opening up a bookstore of one's own. From buying to customer service to leases, I've learned many invaluable things about the independent book business, and I will absolutely use what I read to help in my own endeavors.

Mar 27, 2012

Wildwood, by Colin Meloy

This fun kid's book was a huge seller during the fall, so it was with great anticipation that I began reading it. As fun as it is, I was heartily disappointed by the lack of originality. It is, essentially, the movie "Labyrinth" mixed with the Chronicles of Narnia books. Prue McKeel's baby brother Mac is stolen away by a murder of crows and taken into the Impassable Wilderness, just outside of Portland. Prue and her friend Curtis enter the Wood, in which they meet plenty of magical folk and talking animals, in addition to an initially kind and beautiful queen who quickly turns out to be evil and bent upon destruction and domination. Sound familiar?

When reading, my greatest joy and highest respect is reserved for those authors who create unique stories, or at least tell familiar stories in very original ways. The best writing in the world cannot make up for a story that is so obviously culled from well-known cultural icons. Meloy is good at plot and movement and a little shaky on description (again, we encounter some rather cliched phrases). I just wished he had applied it to a more unique story. It's surprising, since Meloy is the writer and singer of The Decemberists, a band known for its vivid storytelling and original sound. I'm willing to give Meloy the benefit of the doubt and hope that as he develops as an author, he will be able to draw on his considerable songwriting skills to weave for us less formulaic story.

Mar 23, 2012

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

I was expecting a good old fashioned western when I picked this up, but luckily, I got so much more. The novel is written from the first person perspective of Eli Sisters, the younger half of a renowned murderous duo working in the Oregon Territory for a ruthless man called the Commodore. Charlie, the elder, is most fitted for his work: he enjoys being in control, and while he always gives his victim a chance to bargain, does not shirk from his deadly duty. Eli, on the other hand, has a definite soft streak. He likes animals and women, tries to help the helpless, and spends a good amount of his time fantasizing about finding love and settling down. But he also has a temper, one which his brother has learned how to harness, and does his own fair share of killing.

I was most of the way through the book when I realized that the writing reminds me a bit of Ivan Doig. Doig's books are also basically westerns in plot, but so much more when it comes to the language. DeWitt is less verbose and lyrical than Doig, choosing instead a sparser tone to emulate Eli's mind, but still every page yields a kind of poetry. I was thoroughly impressed with this novel and look forward to reading more of deWitt's work.

Mar 19, 2012

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

This book got so much hype that I had no choice but to place it on a pedestal. Unfortunately, while it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through GeekWorld, I didn't find it to be nearly as good as many had claimed it to be. It's probably best put into the YA section, but even then, it's a little simplistic. True to the games and movies it worships, this book is very black and white. The contrast between Good and Evil is stark and obvious. And to be honest, the obsession with 80s pop culture doesn't feel fresh or fun, due to my generation's hipster tendencies. Everything old is new again, as my mother says. Instead of feeling original and exciting, "Ready Player One" reads as dated and faddish.

The book starts off pretty slowly as we get to know Wade/Parzival's world. America has continued on its economic downward spiral and the entire planet chooses instead to spend all of its collective time inside the OASIS, a truly massive multiplayer online game. Once the action starts and the hunt begins, the book, picks up and becomes more engaging. I just wish it were a little, well, less geeky, I guess. I understand that being so would defeat the purpose of what Cline wanted to create, but it's frustrating that he mostly ignores the fascinating social and political aspects of the world he has dreamed up. Doing so would have made this a much more adult novel.

Mar 14, 2012

The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam

What a beautiful book! Set alternately right after the independence of Bangladesh in 1972 and about a decade later, this gem of a book follows Maya, a headstrong doctor who escapes her changed brother by running a women's clinic in the country for several years. Maya is a firm believer in secularism, and cringes and cries out as she watches her new country, and her brother, slowly veer back towards religious conservatism. She struggles against this movement towards what she considers the evil of their former occupiers.

This narrative is about Maya, but the story is the time old attempt to put a recognizable face onto the atrocities of war. Maya's battle to bring recognition to the war crimes that are not so easy to deal with - the raping of women and the abortions they had to endure due to their beloved leader's insistence that no spawn of evil should live - echoes Anam's own attempt to acknowledge the need for a national reassessment.

Going into this book, I knew next to nothing about Bangladesh, but now I feel I know a lot more. It sheds some light on our time, provides a possible explanation for the current resurgence in religiosity and conservatism that seems so baffling to people of a liberal bent. We have all done horrible things, Anam seems to say, and we must all deal with them in our own way. To deny someone their means of living with what they have done and seen will merely push them further into the abyss. Anam is a gifted and meaningful writer, and I hope to read more of her work in the future.

Mar 13, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

This has been an immensely popular book since it was published, and I can see why. The story See tells is beautiful and heartbreaking, and different in a very unexpected way. I kept thinking the book would be like "This Burns My Heart": young Asian woman finds her way towards a more modern view of the feminine situation. But "Snow Flower" isn't like that at all; rather, the main character, Lily, goes through life very much indebted to and thankful for her place as a woman in rural China. Her joy is in her sons and her obeisance to her elders and betters (including all men), her comfort lies in tradition and the expression of her love through that tradition. In the end, she is admonished for it, yet she remains unapologetic in (most of) the choices.

As a modern female reader, we are used to heroines who break out of socially constricting binds and liberate themselves, so to come across a book that deviates from that norm is, in an odd way, refreshing. See didn't set out to create a masterpiece of women's liberation literature; she wanted to give us a glimpse of a particular time, a different view of what it meant to be a woman that could still lead to fulfillment. And she does it beautifully, although sometimes the explaining of cultural customs, as spoken through her character's mouths, can be a bit stilted. That is my only complaint, however, about what is truly a lovely novel.

Mar 9, 2012

The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Larry Niven is easily my favorite science fiction author, so I tend to shy away from book he's written with another author. This book, although I thoroughly enjoyed it, reminded me why I do so: What I love so much about Niven's writing is how funny it is, and while this book definitely has funny parts, they're just not quite as good as his solo work. Granted, the subject matter is pretty heavy - first encounters with intelligent alien life and the possibility of government-approved genocide - but Niven has dealt with very serious subjects before and they are always presented with humor. That being said I really liked this book; it pulled me in just like any other Niven work and the science is sound, something a lot of science fiction lacks. I'd be curious to read something by Pournelle to see just how much each writer's voice informed the writing.

Mar 3, 2012

The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman

I'm sorry to say that I couldn't get through more than 200 pages of this book, which won the Arther C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award. While I have profound respect for highly original work, there is a limit to how esoteric and bizarre a story can get before it becomes incomprehensible. The ideas grounding this book, the world in which it is set, is brilliant and fascinating: London is in a tropical zone, cancer has been cured but life expectancy tops out at 35, viruses implanted in every human give them all the knowledge in the world, human skin is purple due to the use of photosynthesis. What confuses the novel is the plot. We are ricocheted backwards and forwards in time, with very little to alert us as to where each episode falls within the narrative. Milena, the protagonist, is a very interesting person, but we are presented her thoughts without the third person omniscient. Additionally, it feels like the author is simply piling weirdness upon weirdness in order to get a rise from the reader. Being attracted to the same sex is called "bad grammar," and Milena has it bad; okay, sure. But having her be sexually attracted to a female genetically engineered bear? Really? Milena, at that point, becomes bizarre enough as to make following her thoughts uncomfortable. It distracts from the bigger picture. Added to all this, the copy editing in this particular version is absolutely awful; there is at least one error per page. In the end, all this adds up to an incredibly difficult read, and since after 200 pages I couldn't be drawn into the story, I decided to stop trying.

Feb 28, 2012

Catherine the Great, by Robert K. Massie

Either I've become a more mature reader, or non-fiction authors are getting better at writing, because this is the third non-fiction book I've read recently that has been absolutely enthralling. Obviously, this book is about Catherine the Great, or Catherine the Second of Russia, who lived and ruled during the 18th Century. Catherine was an incredibly intelligent woman who helped bring Russian into the Enlightenment, but who ruled with an autocratic, iron fist. Massie's portrait of one of the most well-known women rulers is thorough and utterly engaging, minus some awkward editing and formatting towards the end. We learn about all aspects of Catherine's life: romantic, political, philosophical, artistic. She was truly a remarkable woman whose political aspirations were hindered only by the vastness of her empire. I greatly enjoyed reading this work and am impressed with Massie's research and writing skills, and certainly recommend this to anyone interested in biography, feminism, Russia, and history.

Feb 19, 2012

The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson

And thus I reach the end of the trilogy. I can't say that I loved this book as much as many people seem to have, but I'm inclined to attribute that more to an overload of fantasy than anything else. Though, as I mentioned before, the particular kind of "magic" in this series is totally original, the core concepts cover fairly well-tread fantasy ground. Good versus Evil, Life versus Death, Despair versus Hope; all of this has been done before. Sanderson does it well, true, but his main message - the power of trust and love - is only a slight deviation from a fairly standard theme, plus the reader is practically beaten over the head with it, there is little subtlety. The puzzles in the book are quite interesting, and I did enjoy figuring things out as the story went along. I just wish the fantasy genre could push the boundaries a little further, go a little darker like some of Garth Nix's short stories have done. The Mistborn trilogy is epic, no doubt about it, and generally a good read, but it does little to make itself stand out from the rest of the pack.

Feb 11, 2012

The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in the Mistborn trilogy, and though a bit long-winded, it manages to be as engaging as the first. The Lord Ruler has been overthrown and Elend Venture declared king. The narrative revolves around the power politics of the broken kingdom, which can get a bit tiresome at times. Sanderson throws twist after twist, it's almost difficult to keep up with it at times. That being said, some of his twists are brilliant ones that make you want to keep reading and see it through to the end. I'm looking forward to finishing the series.

Feb 6, 2012

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

This is the first book of a fantasy trilogy that was given to me, signed and personalized, as part of a book exchange. Once I'd posted pictures of the gift online, I got comment after comment of people exclaiming how lucky I was and how fantastic the book was. Inevitably, high expectations followed.

At first, I was a little underwhelmed, I will admit: the writing and plot were interesting enough, but didn't seem very original. Once I got to the part where the "magic" (Allomancy in this series) is explained, however, I developed a new respect for Sanderson's creativity. Allomancy is the ability to ingest and manipulate different metals to different effect, and very few people have this ability. The main characters use it in an attempt to overthrow the Final Empire, a cruel dictatorship created and dominated by the Lord Ruler, a living god. Is it the best fantasy I've ever read? No, nor is it among the best, but it is definitely quite good. I'm moving right along to the second book because I love the characters and want to see where this goes. I'm definitely glad I was given this, as I probably wouldn't have picked it out on my own.

Feb 3, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

I long ago swore off Cancer Kid books, mostly because they were depressing as hell and partly because it made me utterly paranoid that I would develop cancer. So when the children's buyer at my bookstore vehemently insisted I read this book, I was a little cautious. Yes, it is depressing as hell sometimes, but much more than that, it is funny as all get out.

We follow about six months or so in the life of Hazel, a sixteen-year-old girl living with thyroid cancer that metastasized in her lungs. She's incredibly intelligent, mordant and clever in the best possible way, and reading the story in her first person is a joy. She eventually meets Augustus Waters, a seventeen-year-old cancer survivor with one and a half legs, and the result is typical of Cancer Kid books: cancer boy meets cancer girl, cancer kids fall in love, one of them dies (I won't say which one, obviously).

So what makes this book so much better than all those other depressing Cancer Kid books? Turns of phrase such as, "I fell in love like you fall asleep, slowly and then all at once," to start with. Green has a gift for molding language into thoughts you've never heard out loud, but that feel true and familiar as soon as you read them. Then there's the humor, as I've already mentioned. Augustus and Hazel are hilarious, as only precocious, sarcastic teenagers can be, so even though I spent the last fifty pages crying (not just tearing up, actually crying), the rest of the book made it worth my while. The last thing I love about this book is that it throws out the window all the condescending things people say about YA fiction. For some reason, YA is the redheaded stepchild of the literary world, but so few people realize how incredibly difficult it is to write a good YA novel: not too difficult but not too simple, a good YA book deals with the same complex emotions and issues that adults deal with all the time, and doesn't condescend to its reader or assume s/he can't understand complicated ideas. I have a tremendous amount of respect for authors who plunge into YA and emerge from the deep with such gems as is this book.

Jan 29, 2012

Plastic, by Susan Freinkel

Time for some non-fiction! I am very glad I picked this to read; it's enlightening, well-researched, and well-written. Freinkel decides to examine humanity's relationship with plastics, from inception to end-of-life, through seven everyday objects. She uses these objects to explore the history of plastics, their chemistry, uses, recyclability, and several other themes. Her synthesis of current research is thorough, and though she clearly leans towards lessening the impact of plastics on our lives and our environment, she does give unbiased attention to studies and viewpoints that are less anti-plastic than our current social norm. Freinkel is a good writer, too, which always helps in non-fiction. I really enjoyed this book and encourage others to read it in order to learn more about this ever-present material in our lives.

Jan 25, 2012

The Status Civilization, by Robert Sheckley

I was lent this little novella from 1960 and was quite surprised by it. I expected a ridiculously farfetched premise and cliched writing, but what I read was actually very well thought out and fairly well written. This futuristic story takes place mostly on the planet Omega, which is populated entirely by criminals whose memories have been erased. Bennant is convicted of murder, but he doesn't FEEL like a murderer; this is where the underground resistance comes in - they want to send him back to Earth.

The society we read about is the antithesis of our own: murder is the greatest good, Evil is worshiped as the only legal religion, and movement between classes is both exceedingly difficult and incredibly rare. The strength in this book is Sheckley's determined follow-though. He takes the idea of a tyrannical government run by the dregs of society and brings it to its logical conclusion. He does the same with Earth: peace is only possible when there are no differences between people, so logically, society must be completely conformed. This is dystopian science fiction to the core.

The writing is mostly good, though there are awkward bits. A lot of time is glossed over in a matter of a few sentences, leaving the reader to assume Sheckley was either too lazy to bother describing those times, or had an editor who demanded a maximum of 150 pages. Aside from that, this is a very engaging read and does what all good fiction should: it makes you think.

Jan 23, 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I've been hearing about this book for the better part of a year, so I was very excited to finally start reading it. I was not disappointed. Translated from the original French, this book has two protagonists, from whose perspective each chapter is written. The first is a fifty-four year old widow who works and lives as the concierge of an apartment building that houses very wealthy families. She believes that, having been born poor and ugly, she has no place nor any right to use her considerable intelligence to climb further up the social latter. The second is a twelve year old girl who lives in said building. She is incredibly precocious, and has decided that she will kill herself by her thirteenth birthday unless the world can convince her otherwise.

This book is truly a remarkable piece of work. There's a little bit of philosophy one must slog through from time to time, but generally, it reads like two parallel journals of stasis, then disruption, then change. The prose is beautiful and the research considerable. I only wish the ending had been different. I won't spoil it for anyone besides to say that it left me in tears. I think it was the easy way out, though, as it would have been had it ended "happily ever after." A book such as this deserves to leave the reader wondering what happens next, not such a serious tone of finality. Aside from that one flaw, this is a masterful piece of writing, and I strongly encourage everybody to read it.

Jan 19, 2012

The Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

This is the second book by Hunt that I've read, though I seem to have read them out of order. Luckily, the two stories are only very tenuously tied together, so it doesn't make much of a difference. This is pure steampunk fantasy, through and through, remarkable mainly for the complete universe Hunt has created. You can tell that he really thought through all aspects of his world, rather than just making things up as he went along. This world has a complex political system, a well-fleshed out religion (though I'd personally like a bit more explanation of the Circlist faith, but that may just be my interest in religion in general talking), and believable, if odd, characters.

The book suffers a bit from an overabundance of main characters. We have Molly, Oliver, Prince Alphaeus, Commodore Black, Tzlayloc, King Steam, Nickelby, Harry Stave...you get my drift. Hunt probably would have been better served to focus more on Molly and Oliver, the two characters on which the narrative truly hinges. It is also a bit odd that there is so much more about Molly in the first part of the book, then we only get short glimpses of her later on, despite the fact that is, quite literally, the savior of her world.

Having read Hunt's later book, I do know that he fixed the problem of spreading his characters too thin. Still, he seems to suffer from not knowing how to cut his plot down a bit. The books are good, and I like reading them, but they're a bit on the complex side, more like a miniseries than a movie. I'm interested to read something else of his, to see whether that problem resolves itself with a more heavy-handed editor.

Jan 12, 2012

The Return of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov

It came as a bit of a shock to me that Isaac Asimov wrote sixty-six short mystery stories. He is indelibly etched in my mind as the genius behind such science fiction masterpieces as "I, Robot." It turns out, though, that he loved the mystery genre even more than science fiction, because he loved giving his readers puzzles to solve. His goal in writing these stories, based on Agatha Christie's books (he declares her the greatest mystery writer of all time), was to present a clever little puzzle to the reader within the bounds of a comfortable pattern. The older gents are lovingly antagonistic, the guest always has some sort of problem that needs solving, and Henry, that most incomparable of waiters, always comes up with the answer while the Black Widowers remain stumped.

The stories are quick, fun and highly enjoyable. It is a special little treat to try and figure out the answers before Henry performs his big reveal, and the satisfied little thrill one gets when one does figure out the solution is an added bonus. I would definitely read more of these stories, and think most people would find them quite enjoyable.

Jan 7, 2012

Angelology, by Danielle Trussoni

When I first started reading this book, I felt I was in for a real treat. Trussoni has a gift for description that is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, that seems to be where her only talent lies. There are two main culprits in making this book less than it should be: first, the dialogue is just awful. Trussoni's characters speak exactly the same way she writes, but real people don't speak that way. Real people don't elaborate upon their descriptions with what in some cases amounts to prose poetry. This might have been fine for the angelic characters in the book, but it sounds awkward coming out of human mouths. Second, the plot twists and mysteries are all so painfully obvious. It takes very little time to figure out what Trussoni clearly meant to be shocking revelations, which makes the characters seem naive and unrealistic. It's such a shame that an author can write so beautifully in some parts, and so dreadfully in others.

Jan 4, 2012

The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas

Lukas says it took him seven years to write this book, and I'm having a hard time trying to figure out why. That's not to say it's a bad book; far from it, it's interesting and enjoyable. But it isn't terribly complex. It's written from the (third person) perspective of an eight-year-old girl, but such a narrator does not necessarily preclude complexity. It is especially odd given that the narrator is supposed to be a savant of extraordinary mental capabilities. There is also, oddly enough, too much going on in the novel. We follow three main characters: Eleonora (the little girl), the rector of a local school, and the Sultan. The rector is integral to the plot, but isn't really a main character at all, and having several chapters of his perspective adds nothing to the novel as a whole. If the book were, say, twice as long, it might have made more sense. Overall, I'd call this a promising first book, but I do hope the author can add a little more depth to his next novel.