Dec 23, 2013

Catching Fire & Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I couldn't help myself. I read "Catching Fire" in four days and "Mockingjay" in two. I think Collins went a little overboard with Katniss' craziness, but then the horrors she witnessed, and took part in, would probably be enough to drive any seventeen-year-old girl insane. "Catching Fire" was much more complex than the movie. There's a lot more information about the rebellion and the crackdown in District 12 that I think adds depth that the movie lacked. The film is so focused on Katniss that the viewer misses all the nuances in the book. I'm interested to see what they do with "Mockingjay," and would actually be glad if it's true they are splitting it into two movies. I hope in that way they can do justice to the complex world Collins weaved, where there is no black and white and the gray is far, far vaster than it should be. Torture is so utterly damaging, and despite being labeled as "young adult," the books do not shy away from what what damage really looks like. Rebellion is never as simple as "us good, them bad," and Collins does a good job of making that clear. It's a fantastic series of books, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of "Mockingjay."

Dec 17, 2013

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li

This is a stunning collection of short stories, all of which focus on women at older stages of their lives, reflecting back on what was but also looking into what could be. The clash of traditional Chinese values with newer ideals and realities is written with a deft hand, subtly and smoothly. Li is wonderful writer, the kind that reminds me of the quote professing that fiction often speaks the truths that facts and non-fiction tend to gloss over. Everyone is lonely in these stories, but in different ways; we are given snapshots of their lives, some of them, while with others we are granted the decisive moment. A beautiful collection, this, one I would readily suggest to others.

Dec 14, 2013

Welfy Q. Deederhoth: Meat Purveyor World Savior, by Eric Laster

This Advanced Reader's Copy was sent to me at the bookstore from the author, who lives in LA but often visits Napa, and it's a fantastic find. It's written for middle readers, but of a decidedly precocious bent, as it has plenty of advanced vocabulary and some rather dark themes. The eponymous hero grew up in the foster care system, and had some awful experiences, causing him to run away to New York City when he's about 15 years old. He eventually finds a steady job at a deli, owned by the astrologically obsessed Morton, and by accident (or is it?) discovers a portal to an alien planet. The Brundeedles are convinced he is the prophesied savior of their people after near total annihilation by an insect-like species called Ceparids. Laster is deft at weaving Welfy's complicated - and all too common - past into his science fiction future, and it's really nice to see another boy hero in a genre overpopulated by female warriors. I look forward to handselling this book to our young customers!

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I haven't read this series yet, since YA fantasy is totally my thing, and that I've already seen the first two movies before reading the books. I was first a little surprised by the novel; I wasn't expecting it to be in first person, but I like the ambiance it creates. And it sure was engaging as all get out. I had a hard time putting it down, though it isn't, by any means, the best YA book I've ever read. I understand the changes and deletions they made for the movie, which is what I had heard from friend who had read it before seeing the movie. And though I love Jennifer Lawrence, she definitely isn't the same physical type as Katniss in the book: she should be quite small, thin from years of eating at a barely subsistence level, where Jennifer Lawrence is quite healthy looking. But I loved the book, and I can't wait to read the next two (hopefully, I'll finish the third before those movies come out).

Dec 8, 2013

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

One of the best Discworld novels I've read. I love the Moist von Lipwig character, which also featured in "Making Money" (I'd read "Going Postal" first in this mini-series inside the Discworld series). Thank you, Terry Pratchett, for your humor and impressive writing skill!

Dec 7, 2013

Jerusalem: A Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It took me well over a month to read this tome, and I'm still not sure whether it was time well spent. This 550 page book is a history of the city of Jerusalem, from pre-Jewish times up through the modern day. Some parts are more interesting than others; sometimes this was because I already knew some of that particular history so the section was less intriguing to me, and sometimes it was because the section seemed better written than others. The section entitled Judaism is well-written, and it's interesting how Montefiore told the story as found in the Bible while also referring to outside sources. Other sections reminded me why I didn't read non-fiction for such a long time: they seemed to be simply fact written after fact, with little in the way of literature to make the facts come alive. And though Montefiore makes much of his unaffiliated, unbiased presentation, he doesn't hide that his own family, the Montefiores, were ardent Zionists and had a large impact on Jerusalem and the founding of Israel. One has to wonder, then, exactly how unbiased he can be.

I find that the overall history left me rather cold, but the numerous little factoids, the oddities of history, were fascinating. I would much rather have read a book more focused on, say, the Jewish army corps that was created by a German kaiser in the 1800s, than read the entire history of Jerusalem.

Despite Montefiore's hopeful stance in the Epilogue, I can't say that I was left with much more hope for a peaceful Jerusalem than I had before reading the book. What struck me most was the horrific fighting between - not the Jews and the Muslims, as you might think - but the various sects of Christianity! In modern Jerusalem, it appears to be more likely for a Greek Orthodox Christian priest to attack a Catholic priest than for a Jew or a Muslim to attack the other. If not even two sects of the same religion can get along, how can two separate religions hope to coexist peacefully?

My cynicism aside, it's an interesting, varied history, and one not as well known as many people think. I don't know that I would suggest this book to the lay reader, but for anyone interested in religious history or the roots of the current Middle East crisis, "Jerusalem: A Biography" is certainly a good source of information.

Dec 2, 2013

No Place for a Wallflower, by Nathaniel Robert Winters

This is a curious little book, given to my bookstore by a local author. It's based on the letters of Iola Hitt, now a 93-year-old woman living in Napa Valley, to her family when she served as a nurse in the Army during World War II. They aren't the actual letters; the book takes the form of a dated journal based upon those letters, with some fictionalizations added in to provide context. It's a mere 97 pages, and though I started it with major hesitation, it turned into a lovely little find. The prose is a bit awkward, which is fine given its pedigree; the book makes no pretensions about being a great work of literature. It's a fresh take on a much-traveled subject. WWII seen through the eyes of a nurse, who viewed the before and after of war but not the actual act thereof, is quite interesting. I'm glad Winters brought it into the bookstore, and glad I read it.

Oct 27, 2013

Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is the kind of writer you don't read so much as soak up through your fingertips. Though he is best known for his works of science fiction, like "Fahrenheit 451," he wrote many other kinds of fiction as well, and I don't think it's exaggeration to say that his work is some of the best writing of the 20th Century. Evocative doesn't even begin to describe it; Bradbury molds language in such a way that you don't quite feel like you're reading. You smell the hot air of the Midwestern summer, hear the far off singing of the local junk man, feel the inexorable wonder of being a twelve-year-old boy. It's almost too much, in fact. "Dandelion Wine" is not a long book, but it took me a week to read because you simply cannot read it quickly. Everything has to sink in, or else it's not worth it. Bradbury was a man born to write, and we are lucky that he did so with such vigor.

Oct 20, 2013

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, by Alberto Angela

This was a huge bestseller a couple years ago, and since I love history I decided to give it a try. I'll admit that it sat on my shelf for a long while, though, since my experience with nonfiction (particular history books - thank you, college) leads me to assume that most of it is rather boring. Boy, was I wrong. Translated from Italian, this is more a work of archeological voyeurism than history. The reader is addressed as a tourist visiting Rome during the reign of Emperor Trajan, around 115 CE. Angela takes us from midnight to midnight, describing all the sights, smells, tastes, and noises we would have experienced there. We learn about Romans from all different walks of life, from the elite down to the lowliest slave. Monumental works we see now as degraded shades of their former selves are delectably described for our benefit. It's part history lesson, part travel guide, and Angela does a fantastic job. Granted, the translation to American English is a bit awkward at times, and there were numerous editing errors throughout, but they take little away from the whole. It's no wonder this was such a fast seller; it wonderfully brings history alive in a way anyone can enjoy.

Expiration Day, by William Campbell Powell (April 2014)

This YA science fiction novel arrived at our bookstore and had a mildly interesting blurb on the back, so I decided to read it. A mere 40 pages into the book revealed that the blurb was completely wrong, and that it is, in fact, far more interesting. "Expiration Day" takes place in a future much like the one in "Children of Men." The human birth rate has fallen precipitously, though not stopped altogether, leading to a series of world wars and a population somewhere around only 250 million. The best way to stem the violence appeared to be the creation of robotic children, exceptionally complex beings that would look, feel, think, and behave like real children. The only problem is that they cannot grow naturally, and so must be periodically upgraded. The teknoids, as they are called, are loved and accepted into society, but only up to a point. It is still considered extremely gauche to acknowledge the existence of the robots, and even more so to admit you are one. And there is one other glaring difference: all teknoids must be returned to the company that makes them by their 18th birthday.

This is exactly what has happened to Tania Deeley. She has always been told she is one of the few precious humans, but we (and she) soon find out this is not the case. The story of her struggle with her own and others' humanity is told in diary entries, and it's pretty fantastic. The book is a bit long, perhaps, and while I understand why Powell focuses so much on Shakespeare, even I got weary of reading verses and tended to skip over those parts. But otherwise the writing is great and the story is incredibly interesting. The very end is a bit confusing, and I'm rather disappointed this isn't going to be a series (or at least, it seems that way). Following Tania's work and life would be fascinating, and I'd certainly love to read more of Powell's work. This is definitely a book I'll be selling in our store.

Oct 6, 2013

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

I really like Tina Fey. I love "Mean Girls" and thoroughly enjoyed "30 Rock." I think it's awesome that a 40-something, normally shaped woman has become so popular based on her insane amount of talent. This book is not quite as awesome as Tiny Fey, but that's mostly because it wasn't what I expected. Yes, there are tons of funny bits - the chapter about her father, and really anything about her childhood - but this book is really about feminism. It's about a woman trying to do what she loves, when what she loves happens to be dominated by men. So much of the book is Fey's advice on how to feel better about yourself as a woman in the workplace and as a working mom; I liked that, and appreciate it. It just wasn't expected, and so threw me off guard for a bit.

I do also have to mention that this feels like a bit of a throwaway. Like someone said, "Hey, Tina, you're a writer, you should totally write a book!" So Tina, being a writer, and a damn good one, did just that. But it's more a series of thoughts than a coherent piece of writing, a bit like a journal. I think this is one of those situations where a more heavy-handed editor could have steered the author in a more productive direction, but because the author happens to be famous, this didn't happen. I'd actually love to see Fey write long-form fiction. I think a novel by her would be funny and moving and quite special. I think Tina Fey has a lot of staying power, and I can't wait to see the work she does, in any medium, in the future.

Oct 2, 2013

The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore (April 2014)

I just about died when this Advanced Reader's Copy was sent to our bookstore; Moore is one of my favorite authors, and this novel is a sequel to the first Moore book I read and loved, "Fool." Just as that was a retelling of Shakespeare's "King Lear," this is a reworking of "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice." Moore's work is always dark, but this novel is especially so. Pocket's beloved queen, the beautiful Cordelia, has died while Pocket is on a diplomatic mission to Venice, trying to stop an unnecessary Crusade. Pocket is himself left for dead, but is sustained by...something. Something slithery and dark and clawed. Upon realizing that he is going to live, Pocket devotes the rest of the book to revenge. Coldblooded, delicious revenge. So it's vulgar and funny and all that Moore is brilliant at (the Chorus just about killed me every time), but it's actually more serious than most of his other books. Vengeance and plotting and racism are heady subjects, and Moore does a wonderful job of emulating Shakespearean hyperbole. I found myself wondering many times whether he was quoting or paraphrasing or just being a really good writer. This is a different sort of offering from Moore, and though I wasn't sure how I felt about it while reading, I can say now that I really like it. He's a gifted storyteller, and as always, I look forward to reading more of Moore.

Sep 25, 2013

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Despite its tongue-in-cheek title and happy, bright orange cover, this is not an easy read. Emotionally. Philosophically. I struggled to maintain interest for bits of the book, because it's incredibly (perhaps excessively) introspective. Not much of anything happens. The crazy universe and time travel aside, this is a book about a son trying to find, and understand, his father. There are a lot of feelings, so many feelings, and though I hate to admit it, I need more plot to pull me through. It's too stream of consciousness, too existential, for me to enjoy it as fiction. This is purely personal taste, though, and I can at least say that I love the idea behind the novel, and am impressed with Yu's mental acrobatics in successfully executing what I can well guess was a rather amorphous concept. I just think this wasn't the book for me.

Sep 19, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

I was prepared to slog my way through this classic, performing a type of penance for the prize of being able to say I've read "The Grapes of Wrath." Boy, was I taken off-guard. This is a heart-breaking, incredible work of literature, and once I got into Steinbeck's unique cadence, the pages flew by. Chronicling the migration of an Oklahoma family to California in search of work after their land has fallen to bank repossession in the mid-1930s, "The Grapes of Wrath" was an attempt - and a very strong one - to open naive eyes to the unbelievable hardships of Depression-era Americans. Suffering chronic malnutrition, frequent stillbirths and deaths, and constant humiliation at the hands of their fellow man, these migrants, who sought only to make a living for themselves and their families, were instead subject to the cruelest vicissitudes of capitalism. Steinbeck's writing takes a bit to get used to; he is fond of repetition, particularly with color words. But once you are used to it, the ebb and flow of the sentences, particularly the dialogue, pulls you through, chapter after chapter. The format is interesting, as well: the chapters alternate between the story of the Joad family and much shorter, almost prose poetry sections that refer to the greater situation, before delving back down into the Joad family's particular troubles. And the ending...the ending is especially powerful. This is not a book I will soon forget.

Sep 5, 2013

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson is truly one hell of a writer. I fell in love with his historical fiction trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, first. Then I learned he was most well known for his science fiction, and devoured Anathem and Cryptonomicon, and recently thoroughly enjoyed REAMDE. Snow Crash, written in the mid-1990s, was his big entrance onto the authorial stage, and it's a doozy. I really love sci fi that thrusts you into a world that's similar enough to our own to be familiar, but different enough to cause some serious disorientation. America of Stephenson's imagining is a jumbled mix of businesses and pseudo-governments; the lingo is completely changed and so is the culture. Our protagonists, Hiro and Y.T., are very likable, relate-able even though their milieu is so novel. Stephenson flexes his mighty plot muscles, spanning a new reality from the very beginnings of written human history into an alternate present. Even in made up sci fi slang, Stephenson's writing is phenomenal. There are sentences that take your breath away, sections you want to read over and over, characters so poignant in their reality it makes your eyes water. He's good, he is, and I can't get enough. Worth noting, as well, is that the modern usage of the word "avatar" was created by Stephenson for this book. He acknowledges in a short afterword that a Japanese company had independently started using avatar in the same way some years before Stephenson, but it was this book that placed it into the modern consciousness. So he's kind of a big deal.

Aug 25, 2013

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

This is one funky read. Half medical drama, half mob tale, Bazell's novel pulls the reader back and forth between the narrator's previous life as a hired gun for the mob (but one who only kills people who really deserve it) and his current life as a doctor while in the Federal witness protection program. It's really original, which I love, and darn good for a first novel. I can't say I have any strong feelings about it; I enjoyed reading it and would certainly recommend it to someone looking for a fun, smart, quick read, or for something pretty different from what's out there. Since Bazell managed to find time to write this book while interning at a hospital, I hope he can find the same balance in his life as a practicing doctor and novelist. He's good, and interesting, and we need more books like "Beat the Reaper."

Aug 21, 2013

Loot, by Sharon Waxman

The world of art and antiquities dealers and museums is a surprisingly deeply shadowed domain. Writing about contemporary demands for restitution of items most likely looted and illegally (and/or immorally) sold from their source countries, Waxman reveals a sordid past rife with Western arrogance and nationalism and unequaled greed and cupidity, on the part of both Western collectors and source-country-dealers. Explaining how museums like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum acquired many of their pieces - e.g. the unrivaled pillaging of Egypt by the French, followed by the subsequent plundering by the British - Waxman makes the very good point that the West owes an enormous apology to those countries, rich in antiquities but poor in current economic and political world standing, for its incredible hubris and indelicacy in removing artifacts. She describes entire ceilings and large chunks of Egyptian tomb walls being unceremoniously chopped, dug, and even exploded out of their surroundings for delivery to Europe. And the tomb raiding in Greece, Italy, and Turkey remains a huge problem, spurred by museums' willingness to look the other way when presented with an object that has no clear provenance.

However, Waxman also raises an issue that complicates matters tremendously: most of these countries are unable to take care of their own antiquities. Faced with massive budget shortfalls and generalized cultural indifference, museums in, for example, Turkey, are rarely visited and often prey to insider thefts, not to mention the fact that such museums are rarely possessed of modern preservation tools. Given these facts, Waxman intelligently notes that the issue of restitution is almost entirely political. Turkey, trying to force its way into the modern First World, uses antiquities to shame the West into acknowledging its past bad behavior. Is this anger warranted? Most definitely. But Waxman, along with many museum heads, argues that the past belongs to all humanity, and though the British were absolutely wrong to cut through several statues in order to reach one enormous Ramses and bring it back to England, the damage has already been done. These treasures are seen by thousands and even millions of people every year, whereas they would almost surely languish in their source countries.

Waxman sees a future with a much more transparent museum culture and a whole lot more cooperation. She suggests that museums open up about their pieces' unpleasant provenance in an effort to present a holistic view of each item's history. Countries that want their antiquities back should be willing to loan them out for extended periods, particularly if they are incapable of caring for the objects properly.

I enjoyed this book. It's well-written and incredibly interesting, and impeccably researched. One glaring omission for me was any discussion of Asian artifacts. I completely understand not being able to include everything (the book is already 375 pages long), but aside from a single paragraph in the concluding chapter, there is no mention of any restitution demands from Asian countries. I'd be interested to know whether Asia has a similar relationship to Western museums as does the Mediterranean.

Aug 8, 2013

The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

I know, I know, another Pratchett book...I can't help myself, they're fun! This one is actually his first foray into Discworld, the universe about which Pratchett has written oodles and oodles of books. It's funny, it's cute, it's ever so British, and at certain moments it's even a little bit touching. Silliness aside, Pratchett is a talented writer, and though I read his books mostly for the humor, it's the quiet moments of beauty that make them special.

Aug 3, 2013

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

Yes, that is his name. Or rather, it was his name. Breece Pancake killed himself under rather confusing circumstances shortly before his 27th birthday, after having several stories published and numerous endorsements from other writers. Born and raised in West Virginia, Pancake wrote what he knew - the land, history, and people of West Virginia were his subjects. In his focus on one geographical location, he reminds me of Ivan Doig, who writes mainly about the mid-West and West. Though the writing is fairly simple and straightforward, Pancake's stories are anything but simplistic. In fact, though each story is quite short and this collection no more than 150 pages long, it is difficult to read them straight through. Pancake captures an incredible pathos in 1970s West Virginian denizens, a pulling tension between tradition and family versus change and growth. The protagonists, male and female alike, have minds that are painful to step inside; they are stunted and unfulfilled, but unable to push beyond their surroundings into something more. It's clear that Pancake had an innate talent for writing, and it is an immeasurable shame that he had to leave the world so soon.

Jul 30, 2013

Into the Beautiful North, By Luis Alberto Urrea

It's amazing to find an author of remarkable talent who can use that talent in very different ways. Urrea's first novel, "The Hummingbird's Daughter," was lyrical and haunting, and incredibly beautiful. "Into the Beautiful North" is hilarious, a satire of Mexico, America, the Border Patrol, and teenaged girls. It is a powerful condemnation of the way Mexicans treat other Mexicans, while also poignantly drawing notice to the agricultural disaster that has spurred Mexico's economic hardships. Urrea also deftly points out the often overlooked fact that many illegal immigrants in the US don't want to be here - they miss their homes and families, their language and culture. And though it's frequently laugh-out-loud funny, "Into the Beautiful North" has many moments that delight the reader with Urrea's wonderful use of language. Urrea is truly a gifted author, and I hope there is much more fiction from him in the future.

Jul 27, 2013

Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the middle book of Robinson's epic trilogy about the colonization and terraforming of Mars, and I found it just as challenging and interesting as the first. There is a LOT of science in this book, though a bit less than the first, as it focuses more on the growing pains of Martian civilization. I once again found Robinson's insight to be impressive, as he deals with politics on both a very small and very large scale. Partway through, it occurred to me that this is more than just a story about Mars and colonization; it's also a frank evaluation of the dangers of corporatism. Robinson's Earth has become consumed in constant crisis due to the overwhelming financial power of its companies, called transnationals or metanationals. These companies have essentially taken over entire countries, thereby rendering world governance ineffectual and subject to the whim of capitalism. I appreciate Robinson's efforts to broaden the scope of an already detailed story, and though it was a challenge to work though, I look forward to concluding the trilogy.

Jul 9, 2013

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

I had high hopes for this novel since the former buyer of a bookstore I worked for, a woman of impeccable taste and instinct, loved it. I am, instead, disappointed. Duncan does his best to revitalize a genre that has been made utterly ridiculous and inane by the likes of Twilight, while still acknowledging that ridiculousness is rather inevitable. But it feels like he tried too hard, and if I had hoped for an occult novel that dealt with the topic differently, and at least somewhat seriously, my hopes were unfulfilled. Partly I think it was the excessive amount of sex, which, yes, I understand is a nod to the whole "beast inside" reality of every human - this is, of course, what the werewolf and vampire mythos is about, the inner creature whose only animal instincts lead it to, in Duncan's words, "fuck kill eat" - but it's too much. The graphic sex turns it into a trashy romance novel, where it could have been, with Duncan's considerable authorial skill, so much more. Plus there were little things, like his inability to simulate American English. For example, an American woman would NEVER, unless it be for ultimate shock value, call her vagina her "cunt." EVER. That word has much stronger connotations for Americans than it does for Brits, so when his lead male (British) character says it, it works; definitely not for Talulla. Little mistakes like that make me uninterested in reading the second book in this series, since Duncan wrote it from Talulla's perspective. The intrigue aspects (i.e. the plot) were great, and more focus on that would have made this a much better novel.

Jul 6, 2013

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

This is Gladwell's second book, written after his incredibly successful "The Tipping Point." I haven't read that one, but I'm sure it's just as interesting and fun to read as "Blink." Gladwell is clearly fascinated by the deep inner workings of the human brain, how we function with so much going on even in just our daily lives. "Blink" is about intuition and gut instinct versus careful and orderly analysis. His conclusion (and I'm not ruining the book by doing this, you'll definitely want to find out the reason why it is so) is that when it comes to minor decisions, we're better off considering things deliberately; but major decisions, like deciding whether a patient is having a heart attack or if a museum piece is authentic, are best left to instinct, albeit instinct honed by experience and practice. Gladwell is a fun writer, whose fascination is contagious, and I can see why his books are so widely read. He's also rather endearing, because he wants his work to be used toward the greater good, to help, for example, police officers shoot their guns less. I hope the thousands of people reading his book will react with more than just interest and start putting his theories to work.

Jul 3, 2013

A World Out of Time, by Larry Niven

I can't help it. I just love everything Niven writes! Granted, it may be that, as the first science fiction author I ever read, he will forever hold a special place in my reader's heart. But I also think his writing is just flat out incredible. Niven is firmly a hard sci fi writer, but his characters hold so much more life than many hard sci fi authors can seem to muster. Perhaps it's his slightly British sense of humor, or the way he explains complex physics in ways that even I, someone who can barely add two numbers in her head, can understand, but he's also a fantastic storyteller. His books are engaging to the point where it's amazing if it takes me longer than a couple of days to read one. The ideas are highly original, something I value only slightly less than writing talent. This novel in particular reminds me of Wells' "The Time Machine," with the sense of voyeurism the reader experiences upon being granted a glimpse of our possible future. Coming back to Niven is like breathing fresh air after a long time underground. Tolstoy and Eggers are great, but I'll take Larry Niven any day of the week.

Jun 30, 2013

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

This famous novel is firmly entrenched in the fantasy pantheon, and I had been looking forward to reading it for years. While I appreciate its incredible originality, and absolutely love the idea behind it, I have to say I was a bit bored with the book itself. I know I'm reading a book I really like when I forgo Netflix or Reddit in order to sit and read for hours at a time. This book, I read only when eating and before I went to bed; the one time I tried to just sit and read, I became restless after fifteen minutes. Perhaps the problem lies not in the inherent value of the novel, which was unique at the time it was published, but in the fact that there have been many copycats since then. Having read the latter, the former just doesn't seem as exciting as it must have twelve years ago. I wish I had read it when it first came out, as I believe I would have liked it better. I certainly have enjoyed other Gaiman books. He's a fantastic storyteller, with that uniquely British sensibility I like so much. My slight disappointment with this novel will not stop me from reading Gaiman's other work.

Jun 19, 2013

English Creek, by Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig is one of my favorite fiction writers. His books, set in the West and Pacific Northwest, seem to me to be the literary equivalent of walking softly while carrying a big stick. Filled with cowboys and ranching and men who work hard but say little, Doig's characters and stories speak immense truths in the most unassuming ways. This particular novel, sequel to his famous "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," is a bit heavy on the ranching information, but no less powerful when getting down to the nitty gritty, as, for example: "People. A pain you can't do without." "English Creek" is ostensibly a coming of age story - Jick, a few months shy of fifteen, bridges the awkward gap between child and adult - but it is more about the end of an era, heralded by cars and telephones and World War II. I could have done without so many detailed descriptions of haying and of the national forest; these make the first hundred pages or so a little difficult to push through. After that, the story picks up, and it became easier for me to fall into Doig's writing the way I always do. Though this isn't my favorite Doig novel, it is still beautiful and moving, and as always, I look forward to discovering more of his work.

Jun 13, 2013

Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman

What an utterly fascinating book! Okay, full disclosure, I have no children of my own, no younger siblings, and never really babysat, so my frame of reference for child rearing techniques is admittedly quite limited. That being said, working years in retail has acquainted me with how American children of different ages act, and how their parents (usually mothers) often respond. It's also a culturally accepted fact that American parents will be exhausted by child care and that they would do just about anything to ensure their children a leg up in the world, even if it makes them look ridiculous.

Druckerman, a journalist and mother of three, lives and raises her children in France with her British husband, and witnessing the drastically different French style of child rearing inspired her to research and write this book. She acknowledges that she and her fellow Anglophone mothers are all too familiar with sleepless nights, tyrannical children who refuse to behave, and complaints about their husbands' varying degrees of uselessness. But Druckerman's French friends all have children who sleep through the night a mere three or four months after birth, who are impeccably behaved and sit quietly at the dinner table and are happy to eat what is placed before them, and actively romantic sex lives with their husbands. Druckerman's quest is to find out what philosophies and attitudes might lead to this difference, and whether it is achievable for parents outside of French culture. What she finds out and the conclusions she arrives at are astounding, both in their far-reaching consequences and their simplicity, and her engaging, personable writing makes this a wonderful read.

Jun 10, 2013

The Circle of Magic series, books 2-4, by Tamora Pierce

A little while ago, I reread the first book of this series, written by my favorite childhood author. When I had initially read it, many years ago, I didn't like it nearly as much as I loved The Song of the Lioness series, and was disappointed. I decided to give it another go and read the first book again, and it turned out that I liked it just fine. Over the last couple of days I read the rest of the series, and I think I understand why I didn't enjoy them in the first place. The Song of the Lioness, along with Pierce's several other series, focuses on one female protagonist. This made it easy for me to identify with her, while also making it simpler for a young reader to follow the thread of the story. The Circle of Magic has four protagonists, one of whom is a boy, and I think it was just a little jarring for my younger self. These books are also Pierce's only to take place in a different universe from all her other series, and that was a world I fell in love with long ago, whose rules and eccentricities I'm as aware of as our own. Loving Alanna's world made it difficult to love Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar's. Reading it now, Pierce's writing still has the same pull on me as when I was 12; she really is a treasure of a young adult writer. And while I don't love them as much as her Tortall books, I look forward to reading the next installment in these young mages' lives.

Jun 5, 2013

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

I have only one problem with this literary mystery, as it is on the whole quite good. "The Gods of Gotham" is written in the first person, which is perfectly fine, except that the narrator, Timothy Wilde, claims more than once to be "no dab hand with words," and Faye is decidedly not that. She is, in fact, a talented, evocative writer, and I'd absolutely read anything else she writes. But it's incredibly jarring to write beautifully in the first person then have your narrator claim to be bad at writing. The whole point of first person narrative is to get deep inside the protagonist's mind, to see the world through his or her eyes and experience it as they experience it. Tim Wilde says he is a simple man, a drawer but not a writer, but every word of this book is rich and textured and deliberate. Faye's good writing is completely out of character for her protagonist, and it took me quite a while to train myself to ignore that fact and just enjoy the book. It's simply incredible that no editor picked up on this dissonance immediately.

Aside from that, as I said, the book is quite well written and interesting. I especially liked witnessing the birth of New York City's first police force, and the politicking that went on around and alongside it is fascinating. The crime itself was a bit on the morbid side for my taste, but in today's society, one has to get pretty far out there to create a feeling of shock, and Faye can hardly be blamed for her audience.

May 29, 2013

Island of the Sequined Love Nun, by Christopher Moore

I wish I could say I liked this book more, since it's by one of my favorite authors, but it left me feeling rather indifferent. There were flashes of the hilarity and vulgarity that made me love "Lamb" and "Fool," but unlike those books, I never laughed out loud once. Sure, the story is great, and I do think the idea is pretty brilliant. But maybe it's just too much of a traditional "bad boy turned good" story to catch my interest the way Moore's other books have. I can't give away much of the plot without ruining it, and it really did have a great, feel-good ending, I just wish there had been more Moore-iness to enjoy.

May 21, 2013

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

I have to say, this classic horror story surprised me. I was not at all expecting such an unusual format from a book written in 1897; Stoker tells the story of Dracula through various diary entries, telegrams, letters, and newspaper clippings. It reminded me somewhat of Robinson's "2312," which also took an unconventional path to storytelling. It was intriguing to read of the same events in different voices, and the format also made for more fun in guessing what would happen next. I also wasn't expecting to be frightened by "Dracula," with all that we are subjected to in modern cinema and literature, but I could very easily imagine a reader at the turn of the century, reading with the help of flame instead of light bulbs, being utterly terrified at the lurid descriptions. Stoker tells a great story, so that even a jaded 21st Century reader like myself, dealing with the relatively cumbersome prose of the 19th Century, became wrapped up in the novel. My only complaint is the rambling, repetitive musings of Dr. van Helsing, who does seem to go on and on and on. And since he is Dutch, and his English is not perfect, it takes a bit more effort to make it through his long speeches. Otherwise, what a wonderfully surprising read!

May 8, 2013

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

I probably should not have picked up this particular book for my first venture into Murakami's work, but I was still thoroughly impressed. He is clearly an adept and beautiful writer, and I will definitely be reading some of his other fiction. This 925-page tome is, basically, a fairy tale. There is the hero and the heroine, who are fated to be together and feel that subconsciously. There is the supernatural force, not necessarily evil, but certainly destructive in its own way. It just seems unnecessary for the book to have been this long. Proust features prominently in the latter part of the story, and there are certainly echoes of Proustian attention, nay, obsession with detail: we read about how many glasses of water the character drinks, what they eat for every meal, the quotidian minutiae of their days. My guess is this was all very deliberate, but it gets boring after a while, as do the main characters' inner ramblings. They are repetitious and unfocused, particularly towards the end. I read the first three-quarters quite quickly (as I said, the writing is beautiful and the story unique), but the last bit was difficult to get through. "Finish, already!" I found myself mentally yelling at Murakami. My feeling is that at this point, having so many successful, critically acclaimed, bestselling novels, editors are loathe to change too much of Murakami's writing. But in this case, a firm editing hand would have done greater justice to the work. Novels don't need to be short, but nearly a thousand pages is a bit much.

Apr 17, 2013

Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

Another Pratchett book, thoroughly enjoyed. This is not often a laugh-out-loud read like some of his others have been, but that's mainly because the subject matter is rather more serious than usual. "Monstrous Regiment" deals with feminism, jingoism, misogyny, geopolitics, religion, war, and societal change. Heady stuff for a Pratchett book, and I think he does a very good job of it. The novel is still light-hearted and funny, with characteristic Pratchett wit, but with a bit more of a message behind it. Unfortunately, the occasional editing errors were present, as they often are with mass market Pratchett books. I do wish they'd show the man a little more respect by using a decent copywriter.

Apr 11, 2013

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

I read this literary classic way back in middle school, and promptly forgot everything about it. I see why this is recommended for precocious younger readers, but I think it takes an adult mindset to understand what White is actually writing about. There's an awful lot of philosophizing in this book that surely went right over my head, even as a bookish seventh grader, though the humorous writing, the humanity of the characters, and the rollicking quests are classic young adult fodder. So it must be concluded that "The Once and Future King" is a complicated book, for complicated souls. It was daring, really, to write a book about King Arthur, renowned for jousts and chivalry and a generally violence-centric society (even if "he" did try to create a more civilized rule of law) and then so clearly turn it into a paean to - and plea for - pacifism. Arthur's thoughts are surely White's own: there is no excuse for war, no excuse for killing another. One wrongful death leads to another, and another, until the world is swimming in blood and there's no telling whether you have more blood on your own hands or your enemy on his.

The writing is quite different throughout the four sections of the book. It starts out quite humorously, then becomes more serious as the book continues. The inner sections are a bit difficult to plow through, while the last hundred pages or so are downright riveting. This will surely be a classic for a long time to come.

Apr 3, 2013

Neuromancer, by William Gibson (audiobook)

First, a note on audiobooks, this being my first foray into the field (I know, I'm a little behind the times). I have only two bones to pick with audiobooks: the first is that one naturally gets distracted in reading and often has to reread a sentence or paragraph a couple of times. The same thing happens with audiobooks, except it's so much more difficult to go back and "reread" a section you've missed. I therefore lost bits and pieces of the narrative, which is frustrating. My second problem is the way male readers voice female characters. I understand that they're trying to make them different so you can more easily follow the conversation, but the affected falsetto is too soft for female characters with hard personalities. Molly, in "Neuromancer," is a hardened fighter, but the reader's voice made her sound like a mewling lamb. Hardly fitting, I believe.

This is a seminal piece of science fiction, and has both affected and in some cases created our modern world. Written nearly 30 years ago, Gibson's impressive work instigated the phrases and concepts of cyberspace and cyberpunk, notions that still very much hold sway. This book is also the inspiration for The Matrix trilogy of movies, one of the best known cinematic works of the 2000s. Even just listening to it (I would like to go back some day and read it in the traditional paper format), one gets a sense of how huge an undertaking the imagining of this world was. Even more impressive is how well the book is written. It's so easy to get caught up in originality and grand ideas, thereby excusing an author for less-than-stellar writing - awarding them an A for effort, in a sense. But Gibson is a beautiful writer, too. His descriptions are easy to follow but lovely as well, and the emotions of the protagonist are laid out for the reader but not thrust upon him/her. I see why this has been such a popular book, even beyond its groundbreaking ideas, and I will definitely be reading more of Gibson's novels.

Minority Report and Other Stories, by Philip K. Dick (audiobook)

It's truly amazing how many of Dick's short stories have been turned into movies: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner), Minority Report, Paycheck, We Sell Memories Wholesale (Total Recall). Such a proliferation of adaptation points both to Dick's originality and his continued relevance. His stories deal with the all-too human issues of free will, self-indentification, and self-determination. This is what good science fiction does, it makes you think about things you would normally think of only in a philosophy class; it brings thoughtful intellectualism to a wider audience and makes it more palatable. The fact that Dick can achieve this in short story format is incredible. Short stories are very easy to write and notoriously difficult to write well. A good short story is often, I believe, more powerful than its full-length counterpart. I was very impressed with this collection, and look forward to reading his longer fiction as well.

Mar 18, 2013

The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers

I love love love Walter Moers, a little-known German author who writes fabulously original fantasy. But this book, the sequel to the incredible "The City of Dreaming Books," is a bit of a snooze fest. It starts out well, and the reader soon expects to be taken down into the exciting and terrifying maze of Unholm, where giant albino insects and living books roam. This never happens. Instead, we get what is essentially a very detailed travelogue. And as with most travelogues, it's, well, a little boring. There is very little action or plot, since most of the 400 pages are taken up with extremely detailed description. It's rather like being shown a long slideshow of your friend's vacation: you're friends so you don't complain, but the pictures get old after a while and you start to wonder when it will be time for dinner. There will be a third book, and I will definitely read it since the second one ends with our hero, Yarnspinner, stepping foot once again into the labyrinth, but I can't help thinking that this second book was rather unnecessary. The set-up for the return to Unholm could have been done in 50 pages, 100 at most, and I worry that this boring book will deter people from reading Moers' other novels.

Mar 10, 2013

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

This book should be taught in every high school classroom in America, though the reason it is so striking are very different now than when the book was written, in 1950. Then, it was a classic dystopian novel, akin to "1984" and "Brave New World." It describes an America in which books, and indeed all media, have been shortened, summarized, dumbed down, eliminated. But it wasn't the government that spurred this; it was the people themselves who gradually forgot and then demonized intelligence, individuality, and intellectual pursuit. Now, we are living in this time. The advent of social media and reality television, declining book sales and the slow "elitization" and degeneration of collegiate studies, all are combining to create a culture in which stupidity, vapidity, and superficiality are prized qualities. Fire-Captain Beatty's assertion that people just want to have fun and be happy and intellectualism leads only to doubt and depression seems to be finding purchase in today's society. The unthinkable world Bradbury created is coming to be, and it is a prime example of why science fiction is so relevant.

As for the writing, Bradbury is truly a genius. His is a skill of immense proportions, the kind of writing that makes you stop and think and wonder. What a gift it is, to read an author like Bradbury.

Mar 6, 2013

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Everybody loves vampires! Cronin's take on this old fantasy trope is intriguing and engaging, well-written enough for me not to mind (too much) that the book is over 700 pages long but still has a sequel. In Cronin's world, the US army unwittingly unleashes the vampire virus into the general population, decimating North America within just a year or so. Most interesting to me was his main set of characters; most of the action takes place nearly one hundred years after the virus is released, meaning that nearly all the characters were born and grew up in this post-apocalyptic environment. Except, of course, that to them it isn't post-apocalyptic, it is simply their world. They've never known any other. This slight shift from other apocalypse imaginings makes a big difference.

Cronin's poetic leanings throughout the prose started to bother me a little by the end of the book. I understand the feeling he is trying to evoke by all the repetition, but it does start to wear on the reader after 700 pages. I do like, though, the little thread of mysticism in the novel. It intrigues me, and I look forward to finding out more about it in the sequel.

Feb 20, 2013

Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

This is not your typical Christopher Moore book, which is usually filled with vulgar hilarity. This is basically a murder mystery with one hell of a twist, and displays Moore's heretofore unseen (by me) authorial diversity. Using characters drawn from 1890s Montmartre - the artists' enclave of Paris - Moore starts with the murder of Vincent van Gogh, and things get weird from there. Moore's portrayal of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is the closest he gets to the tone of previous novels, which is to say that he's hilarious and charming and ribald. It took me a bit to get into the book since I was expecting Moore's usual, but once I got used to the different voice, I was hooked and read it in two days. The idea is, as all of Moore's are, highly original and delightful, and once I got used to the writing, it was delightful as well and impressive to boot. As always, I greatly look forward to reading more of Moore's work.

Feb 18, 2013

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Mars trilogy is Robinson's most well-known work, and having finished the first installment, I can see why. "Red Mars" is hard science fiction through and through, coupled with Robinson's lovely writing to make a tour de force of a novel. It's certainly not for people uninterested in sci fi; it's almost too hard for me, even. I generally love when a book makes a point of relying on real math and science to underpin its plot structure, though I'll be the first to admit I don't always understand it. Robinson maybe focuses a bit too much on the science here, leaving me, a normally voracious hard sci fi reader, with slightly glazed eyes and a plodding reading speed for some of the book. The political and interpersonal parts - with Robinson's delectable insight and writing style - make up for that, and I like how each section of the book is written from a different character's perspective while remaining in the third person. My only other complaint is probably specific to this edition, as I noticed several editing errors (e.g. repeated words and incorrect cognates). I'll need a break before launching into the second book, but I very much look forward to it.

Feb 6, 2013

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Well. That was unexpected. "Cloud Atlas" is an astonishingly original work of fiction with strong science fiction overtones, the kind of book that doesn't usually do so well with the general populace. And yet it has been incredibly popular, and even had a movie made out of it (which seems improbably difficult a task, and I'll have to see it just to see how on earth they managed it). It took me a while to warm up to the book, but now I love it. The structure reminds me a bit of "2312" by Kim Stanley Robinson: each section ends or starts abruptly, so we rarely get the whole story all in one go, and the reader is left trying to put together the pieces.

The first bit reminds me of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," Mitchell's other book that I've read and loved. What is so extraordinary about this work is how effortlessly Mitchell steps into different voices. Most authors have a distinctive style and vocabulary, but Mitchell has thrown that out the window and actually succeeded in writing parts of the book that could have easily come from different authors, indeed creating his own dialect on more than one occasion.

It took me a good long while to pierce through to the message(s) behind this story. It seems to me they are twofold. First, the obvious commentary on human rapacity leading to eventual world destruction. We get this most strongly in the central pieces, which take place in the future, and a bleak future it is indeed. Second, the less obvious and complicatedly explained idea of pages 392-3: "Our model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each 'shell' (the present) encased inside a nest of 'shells' (previous presents)..." Posited in a different way: My reality is real to me. It is, indeed, the most real thing in the world. Your reality is only a story to me, one you tell to me, so that your story can only be taken on the face value you present it with, thus it is not real. It is "virtual." The things you tell me you have done may or may not be true, and therefore cannot be considered reality, not in the way my own life is real to me. We are all just stories to someone else, no matter how real our lives seem to ourselves. And the past is just another story, another less-real reality.

In conclusion, David Mitchell = wow. What more can be said?

Jan 27, 2013

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells

This classic science fiction novella is a true treat, and a great example of why I love science fiction so much. Wells' tale of an Edwardian time traveler's journey to the year 802,701 CE is fascinating and enthralling. Humanity, he guesses, has split into two distinct species, and the endeavors towards social and economic stability have resulted in a decadence leading to fatal weakness, rather than the incredibly advanced society the time traveler had expected to find. This future horrifies, but as Wells says in the epilogue, "to me the future is still black and blank...a vast ignorance." Fear of the future cannot be allowed to wither the present. The possibilities are endless and infinite, and we must not live perpetually afraid of the most dire consequences of our actions. If the human imagination is vivid enough to think of a future like that in "The Time Machine," it is powerful enough to come up with new ones as well.

Jan 26, 2013

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

I know, I know, another Pratchett book. I can't help that he's great for washing my brain out, so to speak, after I've read something on the heavy side. Like all Discworld stories, this one is funny, smart, and poignant. The basic plot device is the (re)creation of football (otherwise known as soccer, to those of us in America), and I have to admit that it was a tiny bit boring. Luckily there were a couple other stories alongside that one that I did really enjoy, so that helped buoy it up. But among Pratchett books, this is not my favorite.

Jan 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

This being my first foray into Dickens' work, I didn't quite know what to expect and was assuming it would be vaguely Bronte-ian. In terms of vocabulary, I was mostly right. In terms of atmosphere and plot, I was way off. Written in the mid-1800s, this is a piece of historical fiction about the French Revolution, and it is truly stirring in a way I hadn't imagined it would be. Dickens also managed to accomplish something amazing, in that he successfully created sympathy for both the heroes and the anti-heroes. The reader feels just as awful about the execrable conditions of the French peasants as ones does about the plight of Charles Darnay's family. Dickens' point is that tyranny begets tyranny, horror begets horror. Vengeance is never as righteous as it seems to be, and cruelty knows no boundaries of class or wealth. Poverty does not a good man (or woman) make, and the will to stand up against injustice and commit great sacrifice can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places. I am so glad I read this important work, even if it did make me cry at the end.

Jan 11, 2013

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

I have to admit, I LOVE the movie starring Will Smith that was made out of this classic science fiction book. I've been wanting to read more classic sci fi anyways, so I was particularly excited to read this one. First, my comments on the book as unrelated to the movie:

The only other Asimov I've read was a collection of his short mystery stories, and this actually reminds me quite a bit of those. There isn't much of a narrative thread through the book, it's rather a collection of closely related short stories, each of which presents a mystery or problem to be solved. It's always very cerebral, and always solved by the end of the story. Asimov clearly was possessed of a brilliant mind, both for problem solving and for science fiction. The writing is spare; there is not a single word wasted, and I enjoyed every page of it.

Now in comparison to the movie: the plot of the movie is almost entirely original, though it pulls important parts from the book. The character of Dr. Calvin is very close to the book, and the moral dilemmas presented are very much inspired by Asimov's. It was interesting to see what bits and pieces were lifted from the book and worked into the storyline of the movie, and I think that the movie actually did a very good job of emulating the atmosphere and intention of the book.

Jan 7, 2013

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

This much-lauded biography is exceptionally well-written, but in the end it isn't really a biography. As Schiff takes care to note, we know almost nothing about Cleopatra. History has left us none of her extant writing or speaking, many statues that are assumed to be Cleopatra cannot be said with certainty to be her, and everything written about her shortly after her death or even during her life is by propogandists from the other side. Cleopatra's life must be figured from the holes and shadows, pried away from hyperbole and melodrama. Aside from some few coins minted by her and bearing her likeness, we know for sure almost nothing about her.

So Schiff does her best, and instead of a true biography of a person, we have a biography of her time and the people who surrounded her. Schiff uses what we know of Egypt, Rome, and the Ptolemaic dynasty to make well-educated best guesses, and does a great job doing so. Given this, there is much more to be learned about Ceasar, Antony, and Octavian (Augustus) than there is about Cleopatra, and there are a few sections which don't even mention her for several pages. Perhaps I'm being snobbish, since I was educated in history and am already familiar with the story of Octavian and Antony, but I found those sections to be boring. I understand why Schiff included them, but they could have been shortened. I was always waiting expectantly to return to Cleopatra, which didn't happen often enough. That being said, the book is an excellent effort, very well-written and researched and very engaging to read. Schiff has presented us more with historiography than history, the development and aggrandizement of an archetype that has persisted already more than two thousand years, and that in and of itself is an interesting topic. Perhaps one day we will learn more about Cleopatra, if Alexandria ever emerges from the sand, but for now, Schiff's biography does her a great justice.