Feb 27, 2014

Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

Okay, I've officially joined the Mary Roach fan club. I get it now. She's certifiably hilarious; I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud while reading non-fiction! This is Roach's book about the science of space travel - not the rockets or flight paths or lunar modules, but what it takes for human beings to actually survive in space. Gravity (and the lack thereof), food, waste management, personality types. Roach covers a whole lot of ground, the stuff that isn't generally included in textbooks. It's fascinating, to think that a mere fifty years ago we honestly had no idea what space could do to a person. If nothing else, Roach's book leaves one with a healthy respect for NASA's ability to test just about every scenario possible. Her writing is incredibly enjoyable, funny and informative and great fun to read. My only complaint was reading the rather lengthy chapter on excretion while eating my breakfast... Informative, but gross. I can't wait to read Roach's other books.

Feb 23, 2014

Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

This second book in The Lunar Chronicles reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with a Big Bad Wolf who turns out to not be so bad after all. This installment is as engaging as the first, though I found it to be a little heavy on the action. Scarlet's story is intermixed with the continuation of Cinder's, with the entire book taking place over only one or two days. It's 400 pages of pure action, which is exhilarating, no doubt, but a bit much. The first book had a more even pace, periods of action alternating comfortably with more sedate sections. But it's still a great story, and I can't wait to read the third book!

Feb 21, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

Magical realism is big nowadays, and Walton takes full advantage of that. This is a beautifully written book, but it tries a little too hard for originality and ends up feeling a bit like an amalgamation of other magical realism books. The title, first of all, is terrible. Too long, and too similar to "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." And I'm confused as to why this has been marketed as a Young Adult book. There's harsh language, rape, violence, and vocabulary only the most precocious of high schoolers would know, let alone the average adult. It may be written from (mostly) the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, but I really don't think this is an appropriate book for teenagers.

That out of the way, I did really enjoy it. It's quite well-written, even if the style is a bit derivative, but that's not all that surprising from a first-time novelist. The best part is the beginning, as Ava recounts the history of her grandparents and parents. As we get into Ava's story, the plot flattens a bit, but the writing is still lovely. I think, perhaps, I'm just getting a little bit tired of the whole magical realism thing. I appreciate it more in small doses than as the main event in a book; it no longer has the ability to make me gasp with wonder.

Feb 19, 2014

The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

I seem to be into modern retellings of old tales, lately. "The Crane Wife" is Ness' take on an ancient Japanese fable. George Duncan - middle aged, divorced, nice, and utterly bland - wakes one night to find a crane in his backyard, an arrow through her wing. He removes the arrow and the crane flies off; the dreamlike quality of the event seems confirmed by his rather abrasive daughter Amanda, who insists it was just a dream, until an equally dreamlike woman, Kumiko, enters his print shop and changes his life. As for herself, Amanda - 25, divorced, filled with love for her young son and incapable of keeping a friend for more than a few months - struggles to understand why she seems capable of only loving with hatred and violence.

It's a tale beautifully told, and also really quite funny at times. I was unprepared for how funny the book would be, as the cover and plot all lean towards the decidedly melancholy, but the humor rested easily alongside the serious, reminding us that life is not always one thing or another.

Feb 15, 2014

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

Oh, I loved this book...it took me two days flat to read it. This modern, science fiction retelling of Cinderella is a reminder of why I love YA literature and reading. Great plot, totally believable and relatable characters, just the right amount of description, and great originality - all together, they make one hell of an enjoyable read. I'm so glad Meyer turned this into a series, and greatly look forward to reading the second and third installments.

Feb 13, 2014

The Ice Balloon, by Alec Wilkinson

This little book is about the age of Arctic exploration, when intrepid, adventurous men in the late 1800s tried to find the geographic North Pole. Wilkinson writes for The New Yorker, and though he has published several other books (none of which I've read), this one reads much like a series of connected essays. The title is inspired by the Arctic attempt of S. A. Andree (please forgive my lack of computer expertise; that first "e" in Andree should have an accent on it). We learn a bit about Andree's youth and young adulthood leading up to his attempt to sail a balloon across the North Pole, then read about several other journeys, nearly all of which ended in horrific disaster. There's an awful lot of quoting in this book - journals, diaries, newspaper articles, and essays make up the bulk of the narrative, strung together by Wilkinson's writing. There was one section where he listed four or five pages of different kinds of ice and what they looked like. I'm not entirely sure why this was necessary; a few paragraphs would have been sufficient to elucidate that sailors have lots of words for ice. And I have to say that I was extremely, perhaps excessively, bothered by the fact that Wilkinson never tells us what the S and A in Andree's name stood for. A small thing, yes, but when writing a biography about someone, even if there is a bigger theme to the book, for goodness' sake, tell us that basic information at least! We do eventually find out that it stood for Solomon August, but only towards the end and in a quoted section, not in Wilkinson's own words. So the book was interesting, but mostly for the topic rather than the writing, and I can't help but feel a more heavy-handed editor would have helped immensely.

Feb 7, 2014

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

This is the sequel to "The Passage," which I absolutely loved, but I have to say that I didn't enjoy this one as much. It took me a while to figure out why, but it finally dawned on me: Cronin wrote it like a movie, not like a book. Characters say and do things that are scripted for dramatic effect, things that would look great in a movie or a TV show, but read awkwardly in a book. I liked "The Passage" so much partly because it took a common movie theme (vampires), and treated it unlike any movie out there. I got involved in the life the characters had built for themselves after the proverbial end of the world, not in high octane action sequences. "The Twelve" is all about action, revenge, true love - it's not about how real people would act in these science fiction situations. Like when Peter Jaxon defeats a drac in a caged off boxing ring by looking it dead in the eye, or when Sara immediately recognizes a five-year-old girl as her daughter even though she'd never seen her, not even right after giving birth. These are crafted for the big screen, not the small page, and as a reader, this is a disappointment. It feels like Cronin sold out a little, and I'm not sure I'll bother buying the third installment.