Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ryan, Anthony (Queen of Fire)

I don't get it; what's the big kerfuffle? That Ryan pulled too many threads together at the end? Or that he didn't? That he didn't kill enough of our favorite characters? Or he killed too many? That the final bit between good and evil was too short? That he didn't bring back all of those almost-forgotten characters, in the end?

Piffle. This book shows precisely what his intentions were with the series. He gave us his thesis - what kind of magic was available to what types of people and where they got it from and why it was difficult for some to comprehend and others to master, as well as the ineffable fact that war just sucks. I'd say he did exactly what he intended, and if folks are upset because of the answers to those questions above, maybe they are not giving him the credit he deserves.

Ryan crafted a trilogy that had most of us hanging on his every word. How long has it been since you read fantasy that pulled you in to this degree, for any of the three books, but even for the third book if you liked that least? If you say Martin or Sanderson or even Rothfuss, then that's saying something.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

French, Tana (The Trespasser)

Everyone can jump down my throat, but I did not think French's sixth novel was as good as the first five.

Two things to keep in mind: anything she writes is about one million times better than any cookie cutter mystery, and I would never drop her from my reading list (far, far from it). But those first five? They have stayed with me, and when I say that, I mean that the feel of them is never far from me. Those spooky, spooky woods; inhabiting someone else's oh-so-odd skin; that close-knit and horribly-knit family; ghostly undertakings on a school's campus; and last but not least (actually the 4th novel), those holes in the walls (and I'd far rather shout that: THOSE HOLES). Every single one of those novels twisted reality, but not so much that the novels don't live in this world. They just inhabit victim's and perpetrator's mentally challenged worlds.

On the other hand, this one was by the book. Not in terms of how it was told - that is still a psychological masterwork - but in terms of the lack of a compelling reveal. Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely a reveal. But it's a reveal that doesn't live in a twisted reality, so it doesn't send shivers up and down your spine. On top of that, the ending is decidedly grim but also contains hope, which is usually in short supply at the end of her novels. I have ideas for why French has done this, and I think it stems from a tiny bit of pandering. Pandering to political correctness, to clarify. I could be wrong, and I hope I'm wrong, but it left an odd taste in my mouth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Stiefvater, Maggie (Blue Lily, Lily Blue)

I really, really, really want to read the 4th and last book now. But I'm ninth on the list, so I might give in and buy this just to see how she ends it!

There's not much more to say about the 3rd volume in the series that I haven't already said. It's as entertaining (what crazy new character will come on the scene in this volume??), insightful (in terms of her deep understanding of teenager angst), funny (the late-night phone calls between Gansey and Blue are hysterical), and over-the-top (holy cats, those elk!) as the rest.

Also, has anyone noticed that this is in some ways a Romeo + Juliet tale? The forbidden and dangerous aspects of Blue and Gansey's affections for each other, that is. He calls her Jane, and his real name is Richard... Hat tip to my husband for stumbling upon this, somewhat accidentally.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Copleton, Jackie (A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding)

I can't muster a lot of enthusiasm for this novel of Nagasaki before, during and after the A-bomb. While written from the heart by someone who clearly lived in and loved Japan, this is text engineered to teach, in as palatable a manner as possible, the cultural aspects of a worldwide tragedy.

The problem is, I know this tragedy. You know this tragedy. It's been written of a zillion times. I've been fortunate enough to visit the sister city - Hiroshima - and hear the lessons imparted here in person. Even if you haven't visited Japan, you know enough about the WWII bombings to not want to viscerally re-live that. It wouldn't be possible to ignore what the bomb did to the populace of Nagasaki, but the book tries to enhance the tragedy by putting a doomed romance on top of it. There's nothing I dislike more than a doomed romance. Nobody learns anything worthwhile via that plot device.

Copleton does a decent job creating a twisty plot, which she keeps tweaking until the very end. It just felt vastly artificial - and worse, in many places, superficial - and could not hold my interest.

Verghese, Abraham (Cutting for Stone)

Well, I finally got to the end of this massive tome, and you know what? It was actually worth it.

Some caveats, though. It could have been hacked down by at least a quarter of its length and missed nothing. Cases in point: the motorcycle? completely unnecessary; Ghosh's prolonged internment? shorten that; Hema and Ghosh's strange courtship? yawn-inducing. You'll see that most of my complaints are about the first half of the book. I get that Verghese lived this trajectory himself, but truthfully, it only got interesting when his main character comes to America (if that's a spoiler, you're not paying close enough attention). On the face of it, that looks nationalistic, but this is where the book turns both funny and intriguing. He learns things! That aren't about growing up or insurgency or hospitals put together with spare parts (okay, at least some of those are also about his internship in the U.S.).

Then again, you would not have been able to bill this romantic-medical-wayfarer drama as sweeping (so much like Gone with the Wind, only not at all). My own history with it feels that way as well. Picking up the e-book at least 5 times to set it back down again, and finally, with a feeling of failure in myself, grabbing the audio-book, managing to not drive off the road in boredom for the first half, and then finally seeking every opportunity to listen while the tale spun itself to its end.

So, I recommend it and I worry about recommending it. You can actually pick it up and put it back down again. Just don't borrow it, because you most certainly won't get it back to the library in time.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Macdonald, Helen (H Is for Hawk)

I don't think I've read anything in a long while that is both erudite and a super easy read.

Macdonald has crafted something surprisingly special. This is not a thesis (i.e., her university thesis) in sheep's clothing, although it may look like that at the outset. It's a personal rumination on grief on the death of her father - but because her rumination involves buying a hawk and becoming a falconer (again), it's not your everyday foray into the process of grieving. She researches her own desire to buy a hawk to assuage her grief, and thus reads up on other falconers. Chief among these is T.H. White, whose story is nearly as fascinating as her own. (Aside: why in heaven's name are White's archives in Texas, of all places?)

She doesn't find a lot of similarity between herself and White - she ends up finding more disturbing similarities between herself and her hawk for a while - but his lifelong grief is a counterpoint to her own at the time. What you learn about White is eye-opening, but what you learn about hawks and falconry is absolutely the best part of the book. Even having seen falconry exhibits, I had no idea what it takes to be a good falconer, and I'm even more deeply impressed by those who spend their lives at this. (Of course there is controversy about the concept of taming wild birds, but she sidesteps this neatly, for the most part.)

She's a mess, at this point in her life, but it's an engaging, heartfelt, thoughtful and oh-very-British mess. I would love to hear where her life has taken her next. I'll read her next memoir-slash-set-of-essays-slash-research-project in a second.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ishiguro, Kazuo (The Buried Giant)

I suppose this book could have been more vague. What I mean by that is that it could have provided zero hints about where the story was headed, instead of only the most indirect of hints.

I do love Kazuo Ishiguro's writing, and it's been such a long time since I read a book by him. It may be unfortunate that I chose to listen to the audio version of this book instead of reading the digital bits because I was not as enamored by it as I may have been if I had been able to take my time over the phrasings and how the sections fit together. It's also true that the narrator of the audio version was, as does befit the novel, a very slow speaker. But, that meant that in order to listen to the whole thing in a drive to and from Chicago I needed to bump it up to 1.25x speed (sorry, Mr. Ishiguro and Mr. Horovitch).

The content itself captured my imagination. As usual, Ishiguro has added fantastical elements, and in the case of this novel he makes you wonder how many of those are true to his worldbuilding (i.e., real to this story). It's certainly likely that none of what you are reading is true! Other than the fact that there is a journey, and it's likely one with a tragic ending. I wonder if he wrote it upon the death of a loved one (or the dying of a loved one) because it has all the flavors of that kind of a tale (and I did go hear him speak about this book, but it's been a very long while since that evening).

I place the book at almost the same level as Neil Gaiman's gorgeously realized "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" (I loved Gaiman's more), meaning there's a great deal of power here, if you can tap into it. It just takes a little more work that it might for other novels.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lewis, Michael (The Big Short)

No question, this was difficult for me - as someone not a financial analyst and not understanding the complexities of Wall Street and its kin. Yes, I'd seen the movie, and now I will return to the movie to better grasp how Lewis created a narrative cogent enough for someone else to visually depict it.

Because, seriously, I had to have someone else who has both read the book and watched the movie twice help me through this book. Lewis wrote something obviously compelling to many - including the government trying to understand the crisis after the fact! - but it can be somewhat of a slog. I did my best to understand all the most important bits and pieces, but I'm not sure I will be able to tell you tomorrow what a CDO or a CDS is. This kind of fact-retention is not in my wheelhouse. If it is in yours, you will have an easier time; if not, don't work as hard as I did to understand every phrase.

Because, all told, the value of reading a Michael Lewis book is to see how deftly he makes his arguments. His style of writing is informal enough (and frankly, repetitive enough) that you will be able to repeat the main thrust of the argument in the same terms. This, in conjunction with a genius to take super-crunchy themes - his books will always be about math and statistics, I'll bet you - and make them (mostly) understandable to the layperson, is why his writing is so powerful.

With this book, we all know intimately the heartbreak this crisis called. If it didn't happen to you, it happened to someone you loved. Which is why everyone should read this - so that we can not forget the past as we move into the future.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Ryan, Anthony (Tower Lord)

Oh, Mr. Ryan, you did what with the last three words of this 2nd part in the trilogy?? I bow to your unending brilliance.

Mostly because for the rest of the volume, I thought half the time "ooh, this is interesting" and the other half of the time "meh, who cares". As befits part 2 of 3, Ryan has modified his format to include other protagonists - three more, in fact. In addition to Vaelin (who has a slightly smaller story than the others), we hear accounts from Lyrna, Frentis and (someone new) Reva. I admit to being completely confused by this to begin with - we start with Reva, so I was super frustrated that he was taking a different tack, and concerned that I'd never hear from Vaelin again. Once I let the story unfold - about a quarter of the book - this got easier to handle. But I never really got over my irritation at the change in format and what amounted to a series of battle descriptions. After a while, those get damn boring.

Especially because, well, you know that Vaelin is going to win! And all of his comrades are going to win, too. There's one decent surprise in the middle but otherwise the story doesn't have a lot of twists and turns. I did appreciate the detail of the siege, Lyrna's ruminations on what it takes to be royalty, and also the strange churning of the relationship between Frentis and the Lady in Red (that's just what I call her in my head; she doesn't have a name).

It's obvious I'll read that final chapter, and it's already on hold with baited breath. And not just because of that ending (he'll figure a way to free our protagonist, I have no fear) but because he has woven a complex world and I need to see how he unravels it.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Ryan, Anthony (Blood Song)

Which of these many fantasy series should I read? Why, all of them! Well, all of them recommended highly to me.

I do feel like I'm drowning a bit in fantasy, which are renowned for their preponderance of characters, so it can be difficult to keep switching between them so as to keep multiple series in play at a time. I wouldn't have started another one, actually, but this was highly recommended to me. It's a surprising tale - surprising because it seems like it's nothing at all different from similar medieval-history series. I can see parallels to Scott Lynch and also Tolkein, however this has a distinctly different flavor.

I'm not certain if this is because of how Ryan builds his mystery as he tells the plot, or for some other reason. It wasn't until I was a quarter through that I realized there were elements to the story that weren't being explained well enough, and that they would return at other points in the plot, with the assumption that you would remember why they were mysterious to begin with. All of this builds to the satisfying-but-sad ending, and then, as with all good trilogies, leans into the next book.

So, I started the second book right away. As I said: preponderance of characters to keep straight, so I might as well try to finish this while I have them all straight in my head.