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.