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.