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.