Oct 29, 2016

Emperor of the Eight Islands, by Lian Hearn

I very rarely stop reading a book before I've finished it. This happens perhaps once or twice a year, and usually because of boredom more than anything else. This is the case with Emperor of the Eight Islands. It's not because the writing is bad; it's lyrical and descriptive, evocative of medieval Japan and respectful to its distinct culture. And it's not because nothing happens; the plot moves along briskly, with plenty of action. It's just...boring. Perhaps there is actually too much going on, by which I mean that so many things happen, it's hard to care about any one of them. Nephews are murdered, old men's eyes put out, wives passed between brothers - there's so much happening and so many main characters that it's difficult to focus on any one of them. I was halfway through the book and a year had passed without me giving a hoot whether the central main character lived or died. And perhaps the problem lies in that very character's blankness. Shikanoko has plenty to be pissed about: a dead father, a treacherous uncle, romantic jealousy, a stolen land. But none of these things seem to actually motivate him to do anything other than attach himself to the strongest lord around and take his orders. He's a nonentity.

This is a multi-book series, so maybe it just takes a while to get to the meat of the story. But if an author wants readers to pick up books 2, 3, and 4, she needs to hook them in book 1. Hearn failed to do so, with this reader at least, so I'm giving up and moving on.

Oct 21, 2016

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is Harry Potter's favorite book. Well, Daniel Radcliffe's, anyway, along with a whole host of other celebrities and luminaries. Penguin Classic's stunning 50th Anniversary edition was too pretty to pass up, and the book's cache too ubiquitous to ignore. This edition is a new translation by powerhouse Russian translating team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, though I recently read a criticism of their translating skills that was too convincing to ignore. I read their version of Anna Karenina and found it quite readable. But this particular article (no chance of me remembering who wrote it or where it was published, of course) put certain passages therein alongside another translator's earlier effort, and it was impossible to deny that Pevear and Volokhonsky's utterly lacked the lyricism of the earlier translation.

All this is to say, I struggled to get into the writing and I want to blame it on the translators, but of course, not speaking Russian myself, can't read the original and prove to you that my struggle was just that. Language barrier aside, it's a hell of a satire, and I can see why it's so well-loved. Gotta love a book where the Devil is the good guy! As to who the bad guy is, well, pick your poison: bureaucracy, Communism, mob mentality, writers and artists, fear of political retribution, vanity. There's plenty for everyone here, a smorgasbord of derision. Interspersed amidst this bombardment are a few chapters of the eponymous master's book about Pontius Pilate. These chapters are, truly, stunning. What a talent was Bulgakov! Narrative description, which often bores me, here pulls you down into that hated city, Yershalaim, sitting with that poor man forced to kill a man he wants to save him, with only his loyal dog to love, surrounded by forces he can control only enough to doom himself. As fun as the Moscow chapters are, I hungered for Pontius Pilate and his burden. That Bulgakov's writing is skillful is an understatement that does these chapters no justice. A master, indeed.

Oct 4, 2016

Tales of Accidental Genius, by Simon Van Booy

I'll be honest: If I had flipped through this book before picking it up, I probably would not have read it. The second half of this short story collection is more of a long series of interconnected poems. It's beautiful, and I'm glad I did read it, but it's not really my cup of tea.

Van Booy's stories are slices of life; we dip into a moment and quickly dip out. Except for the last piece, which spans a man's lifetime, and reads more like a parable than a story. I have no real criticism of this book, but also must say that it pales in comparison to the short stories of Anthony Doerr, which I reviewed a month or so ago. I very much enjoyed the first two, which are about the kindness of strangers, while the others were interesting but not as engaging. I do appreciate Van Booy's originality in "Golden Helper II," the last story, with its unconventional structure and almost epic song-like cadence. I just doubt I would have been interested in reading more than the 150 pages it covered.

Oct 2, 2016

We All Looked Up, by Tommy Wallach

I usually say that my traditional "wash out my brain" books are anything by Terry Pratchett, but I also love a good Young Adult novel for the same purpose. Books written for teenagers are quickly paced and engaging as heck; they make a great two day read of pure escapism. In We All Looked Up, we follow 4 seniors in a Seattle high school as they learn of a comet that has a 66.6% chance of hitting Earth in two months. Struggling with identity issues as it is, what are these kids to do when faced with a prospect of a future that may not exist?

I heard Wallach speak about a year and a half ago when he accepted a small award for this, his first published book. He cracked me up and I've been looking forward to reading it ever since. But I have to admit that the book leaves something to be desired. Everything that happens is pretty predictable, and the writing is littered with cliches. The characters are the best part about it; they're well-drawn and easy to relate to. It's just everything else that seems, well, amateurish. To be fair, this kind of book reads very differently to a sixteen-year-old, so perhaps I'm being unfair by holding it to a higher standard. Then again, there are plenty of YA novels that fulfill my expectations while still playing to that same sixteen-year-old, so perhaps not.

Oct 1, 2016

What Becomes Us, by Micah Perks

What a stirring, delightfully unique novel! Evie, ten weeks pregnant with twins (who serve as our quirky narrators), leaves her controlling husband and moves clear across the country to upstate New York, settling amidst a tight-knit, complex group of people. Her substitute teaching job puts the store of Mary Rowlandson in her hands, and as she reads the words of the first English-speaking woman in North America to write a book - which describes her kidnapping and captivity by Native Americans - her life becomes entwined with Mary's and takes on new depths of complexity, echoing the babies' growth within her.

Evie is a character that quickly grows on you, and the people surrounding her are so interesting and well-drawn you can't help but become invested in their lives. It's a beautiful book that also sheds light on a little-remembered personage of our early history, and I foresee a significant up-tick in Google searches for Mary Rowlandson as a result. Bravo, Micah Perks, on a really enjoyable read!