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.