Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Were We Really Though?

We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart

Read on December 26, 2015. 

This is a well-reviewed young adult book, and I will say that it is solid. It did not amaze me, but has a lot going for it. I did not figure out the twist (I never figure out the twist). Even better, I was sure that I did know what it was, only to find out that I was wrong. That built-in red herring was a nice touch. 

On the negative side, the entire heft and weight of the book lies in obscuring a few of Cadence's actions one fateful summer. If this story were told chronologically, it would fall flat unless great care were taken with additional character development, viewpoints from other characters, and a wealth of background information. I think I am trying to say that the surprise ending feels like a gimmick to give people a reason to read what is otherwise an extremely simple, bare bones story.  

Final Call:

I like chronological shenanigans when the book is a heavy-hitter in other ways, too, but this one I think leaned on it too much.

If you like this, try:
I feel like I don't read enough Young Adult titles to offer anything meaningful. This article has 10 suggestions that seem legit, though!

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Tale for Winter Should Be Warmer

Winter's Tale
by Mark Helprin

Read on December 25, 2015.

I think this book will end up taking the prize for Most Disappointing Read of 2015. Possibly split with Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Close call.

My expectations for Winter's Tale were high, and it delivered in several ways. Colors are a theme of the book, and that jives nicely with Helprin's writing style. The man can describe the hell out of a landscape, a weather system, a painting. He gets even better when describing fantastical things, like the tremendous animals that live, unmoving, while constantly moving across the space of the entire universe. It sounds hokey when I write it, but not when he does. The existence of the Lake of the Coheeries and its inhabitants and their relationship with New York City are fascinating.

But for the disappointment - that came from the book's underpinnings. The value system or morality that runs through the text is vastly different from my own personal one. For example, a character at one point essentially tells another that it's a privilege for the poor to be ground up and spit out by the workings of the universe, because it's a wonderful honor to be so close to the machinery.  Like, ewwww.  Many times, it's implied that all injustices, instances of terrible bad luck, and criminal acts are all OK, because, well, they just are. Somehow cosmically, the balance sheet will zero itself out one day and people will be rewarded with a glimpse of a perfectly just world. And, that's it. Just a glimpse, indicated by a flooding gold light. So, yeah. Some foggy, vague idea of a fleeting moment of justice somehow makes everything else that came before better. (SPOILER ALERT: Plus, I think Abby returning to life invalidates the whole damned thing. Was her death part of the balance, or was it not?  Make up your mind about this stuff.)

Kindness is not valued in this book. Love only makes an appearance, as far as I can tell, twice, maybe thrice. It's frustrating, because, to my mind, without those two things, what on earth is there? Justice is a good answer, but it cannot stand alone.

Or in other words, I don't think I'll ever completely trust someone in a position of comfort and security telling me, "It's not so bad that some people get horrible lots in life. It's all part of a cosmic plan, just trust me on this." And yes, that has the implications you are probably thinking that it has.

Final Call:

The pure descriptive power rates the stars but can't hide a lack of heart. 

If you like this, try:
I don't even know.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'm Not Alone!

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading
by Maureen Corrigan

Read on December 17, 2015.

I picked this up for a friend, and decided to read it before I passed it on. I'm really glad I did. The book is in three parts, and the last one spoke to me less than the first two, but overall this is still a very strong book. Corrigan talks a lot about female characters in literature. I was particularly fascinated by the observation that, traditionally, most male protagonists have adventures. They do something tangible, tackle an injustice, take out the bad guy. Women in literature, on the other hand, tend to hold fast through some insufferable situation, using their inner strength to survive until circumstances change around them. I loved how she framed this as the female adventure story. 

Probably the best thing I took away from this book was Corrigan's discussion about how reading many mainstream books with male protagonists as a young Catholic girl affected her throughout her life. I can relate very much to those effects, as someone who was raised in a family where women are definitely passive and often submissive, all the while also identifying with book characters who took charge and got things done. You can end up with a desire to do things, but an utter lack of confidence when it comes to doing them. In this respect, the book was almost like a free trip to a therapist.

Final Call: 

If you like reading about reading, this is a stand-up entry into the books about books category!

If you like this, try:
Book Lust, by Nancy Pearl

Monday, March 12, 2018

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half
by Allie Brosh

Read November 29, 2015.

If you have not read Allie Brosh's blog, please do. I don't think she posts new content there anymore, but what's there is amazing. This book is a compendium of her blog posts, among other things. Ally does illustrated, comic book-style posts. Some are primarily humorous, but many more, while humorous at the surface, fearlessly explore the problems that come with being human. She tackles depression in a particularly gut-wrenching way. There's also a post on the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, and it even involves a flowchart. It's brilliant! 

Final Call:


If you like this, try:
Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson, because she maintains a similar knife's-edge balance between absolute hilarity and sharp observations on mental illness based on personal experiences. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

When It All Goes Down, What Do We Keep?

The Girl with All the Gifts
by M.R. Carey

Read on November 14, 2015. 

I can't remember, now, how I found out about this book. This, unfortunately, is a review that I did not write at the time of reading, being the procrastinator that I am.  It's actually four months later, which is bad, but does give me the opportunity to look back and see what has stayed with me over time and through the reading of, hmmm, let's see, twenty-two books since this one.

Surprisingly, the answer is, quite a lot. Melanie as a character is fantastic. Her teacher and the security man and the other traveling companions all still hold a place in my head, despite their names escaping me.

At first, I thought the story was going to take a very different arc. Then, as Melanie and her companions' journey began to take up larger and larger parts of the book, I realized the resolution could not be what I was expecting. There simply wasn't time. The actual resolution is fairly unique, to my knowledge. I would love to read a sequel, although I do not think there are plans for any. I want to see Melanie make her plan a reality. (Note from 2018 - not only is there a movie, there's a stand alone book set in the same universe. Still no actual sequel, though.)

I give this book, overall, pretty high grades for execution. The premise hangs together. People do things based on realistic motivations. The 'science' behind the epidemic and Melanie's existence is not stretched too far. It's about as believable as The Passage, which is pretty good company to be in. And like a lot of other good apocalyptic books, it takes a hard look at humanity and what's worth saving. 

Final Call: 

Mushrooms for the win!

If you like this, try:
Other zombie books are sure to please, so maybe try World War Z by Max Brooks? Both are spins on the traditional zombie tale but I think this one, despite staying at a smaller scale, is more innovative. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Following Up a Great One

Anil's Ghost
by Michael Ondaatje

Read on November 10, 2015. 

Two things brought this book to my attention. First that it's by the author of The English Patent, a book I adore. Second, it's set in Sri Lanka, a literary location I don't think I've visited. The plot, set around the investigation of war crimes by the government against civilians, seemed promising. 

And, the thing is, it is a good book. Anil has depths, her relationship with Sarath has delicious tension, and Sarath himself is complex. The setting is strong; it's an atmospheric book.

All that being said, it did not impact me in the same way that The English Patient did. Part of that may be that there is no great destructive romantic love driving the plot, part may be that there are just very few books that can rise to the same caliber. Even from the same author.

Final Call: 

If you like this, try:
Ondaatje's other books would be a good place to start, because he's a Sri Lankan native. I'm also planning on reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, which documents her grief after a tsunami affects her family holiday in Sri Lanka. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hamburger Helpers, Running Around Causing Problems

by Jeff VanderMeer

Read on October 31, 2015.

The cover is gorgeous.  The premise is interesting.  It's gotten a lot of buzz, even if the buzz has a sort of cult feel to it - not mainstream, definitely weird, but supposedly terrific.  I even bumped this into my to-read list over the discouragingly big bunch of my yet-to-be-read Challenge books for this year.

Instead this is a contender for most disappointing read of 2015.  It's not that its bad, per se.  Okay, well maybe it is.  The only way I can admire it is if I look at the writing itself as creating a state in my brain that is akin to what would happen if I tried to read a normal book while I was in Area X.  

The text seems distorted in an unusual way, that's what I'm getting at.  Sentences just don't track right - the words don't quite make a sensible thought. The flow of the book is odd. "Here's this weird green thing. I hid my inner self from my husband. I see the lighthouse."  If all this is on purpose, it might be brilliant, but I don't think that it is.

There's not much meat to build atmosphere or context either.  A complete list of what we get is:  a tower tunnel, a scary blob, a lighthouse, a base camp, something that moans, a photograph, a pile of paper, and three women. Possibly an island?  And that's it.  

The other problem here is that it's a psychological study told in the first person, and that person is a bit of a wet rag.  She never draws the obvious conclusion about a situation. She describes things in opposite ways, at least one time doing it in thoughts that are only inches apart on the page.  She uses the word really in dialogue. A lot.  

Then there's this talk of hand-shaped fruiting bodies, and after that, all I can picture are lots of little Hamburger Helpers running around causing problems.

Final call:

Maybe two and a half. At least its quick?  To give this perspective - this is the first in a trilogy.  Using page counts, over three Annihilations could fit inside The Passage, which is itself the first in a trilogy.

If you like this, try:
H.P. Lovecraft
Other books in the 'New Weird' genre.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Battle of the Apocalypses

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Originally read on October 27, 2015

I'm reading some apocalyptic stuff because its coming up on Halloween and I like to tuck in a creepy, eerie book to mark it.  This year, it's two.  Both deal with apocalypses, and in an interesting turn, Station Eleven briefly alludes to The Passage.  (Even more strangely, the allusion made me realize something about The Passage that I hadn't quite put together before!)

So let's do a direct comparison, because those can be fun:

How We All Die:
TP - Military attempt to build super soldier with immortality virus goes horribly awry.  Vampires.
SE - Superflu epidemic.

Extent of Destruction:
TP - Most of North America is a vampire playground.
SE - 99.9% of humanity dies, worldwide.

Religious Overtones:
TP - Allusions and parallels galore.  Fate/Destiny/God is At Work Here.
SE - Characters deal with what happens through their various religious beliefs, and one character's beliefs are very important, but not a central theme

Is it a Page Turner?
SE - Occasionally.

Action Scenes:
TP - No problem. Here, have even more action!
SE - Eh.  Most are awkward.

What's the Biggest Problem?
TP - Too many people doing things because of some mysterious feeling or drive.
SE - A religious zealot villain with very little complexity.  

Is it a Good Book?
TP - Hell Yes.
SE - Yes.

What's the Best Part?
TP - The easy, natural power of the storytelling.
SE - The way that the book weaves complications from the time before the flu to consequences after the flu, when you might assume a pandemic would obliterate the past completely.

Final call:

The emphasis on art in several forms is refreshing.  I also get the impression that I would enjoy hanging out with the author.

If you like this try:
Sorry, fresh out of ideas!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

When Books Weigh as much as Cats

The Passage

(Originally read on October 24, 2015)

Is this literary fiction?  Genre fiction?  Action? Adventure? Sci Fi? Horror? Don't worry, no one else knows either!

What I do know is that it's a new all-time favorite of mine.  Yes, it probably weighs more than my cat.  Yes, I have a 20-pound cat.  Yes, there are thousands of small details that don't "need" to be there.  Yes, it gets a little heavy handed with religious parallels.  Yes, it's very much in the spirit of Stephen King's The Stand.  It doesn't matter.  None of that stuff matters when you have a knock-out premise, a set of characters who are genuine people, who take actions consistent with what you know about them, and an author who knows how to pace his plot.

I've read a lot of long books recently, but I don't think any of them put their length to this good of a use, i.e., taking the time to create believable back stories and thought processes for all of the characters involved.  Don't get me wrong, there are probably hundreds of characters in this book and some do serve as place holders, more or less.  But to have dozens of people explored in this much detail, well, I don't get that very often.  

The first section describes the military-experiment-gone-wrong that destroys life in North America as as we know it, and those chapters are just beyond gripping.  Then we get to the First Colony one hundred years later, the tiny outpost of 94 souls under dying lights ... and well, I'm always a sucker for humanity on its last legs, and this part blew me away.  Then everything goes to hell, and the tension ratchets consistently to the end.  Well done, well done.

I keep fumbling around at the edges of why I like this book so much and feel like I'm not getting at the heart of it.  But now that I've thought about it for a few days, I think it might be based on how deeply a story draws you in.  How well you can submerge yourself into it.  It's suspense, of course, but also points of beauty and humanity and reflections and moods and settings.  Like, there's a trail (the plot) and the book should make you want to walk along it.  Plenty of times, you take the trail and its flat and boring and you get to the end and all you can say is that you got some exercise.  But the good trails go up to great views (the ending), and the best have points of constant interest along the way: maybe a waterfall, cool rocks, lots of wildflowers, some deer grazing, birdsong.  The Passage makes a fantastic trail.   

Final Call: 

If you like this, try:
The Stand, by Stephen King, because you really just should read this.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Did I Ever Tell You?

Everything I Never Told You 

(Originally read on October 9, 2015)

Here's the obligatory quick read that I usually need after tackling a big brick of a book.  This is a family drama, looking at how different family members react to each other's expectations, before and after a traumatic, life-changing event.  If books were paintings, this would be a watercolor of a rainy day, all gray and pastels.  Muted and sad, but making a pretty picture nonetheless.  

The ending was beautiful, as it was written, with one problem.  SPOILERS FOLLOW: Marilyn feels like she pressured Lydia into taking her own life.  We, the readers, find out that this is not so.  But, after I finished, I realized that Marilyn is never given this knowledge.  No one except the readers and Lydia actually know what happened.  I would think that being convinced you contributed to your daughter's suicide, as a not-psychopathic mother, would destroy a woman, not set her up for a reunion with her somewhat estranged husband.  

The only other complaint is how narrowly most of the characters are defined.  It's almost like the author came up with five descriptors or drivers for each character, and almost everything they do and say reinforces those themes.  I guess what I am saying is that the bones, or architecture, of the story are too close to the surface and it shows in places.

It's still a very nice read.  It was cathartic, in an odd way.

Final Call: 

This is completely worth the time it takes to read it.

If you like this, try:
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because I think it's the only other book I've described as a watercolor painting.