Sunday, July 26, 2015

Whitehead, Colson (Zone One)

I like a good zombie story. I especially like one that plays a teeny bit with the rules, which this one does. I guess I don't much like one that has a not-so-hidden agenda that I find boring and obvious.

Whitehead lives in NYC. He loves his town. He describes his town, in both its fantasy and its reality, to all and sundry in this book. He is the master of asides, meaning that there is a plot but it is obscured by description. This is my least favorite thing in books, which is probably why I've never been a fan of Joyce or Faulkner or Melville or novelists of that ilk. Perhaps this is my pragmatic nature coming through, but give me plot over poetry any day. Give me Hemingway and be done with it.

So, I love that he separates the zombies into two different types, that he calls them by names that haven't yet been used, that he channels the world as it would exist after this catastrophe (the hopes, the personalities, the obvious violence). This is all fun and engaging. I just wish he hadn't tacked an overwrought love letter on top of it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Saunders, George (Tenth of December: Stories)

Oof. It's like Raymond Carver has come back and is slightly less grumpy, a little more hip, and a teeny weeny bit less depressing.

That's a positive review, really it is! Because I love Raymond Carver - in all his spooky, crazy, true, oh-so-real attitude towards life. Saunders writes similarly, focusing on people who are down on their luck, but his focus seems to explain and clarify rather than obscure. That may seem strange to folks who have read Saunders' work before. What I mean is that each intriguing story has a purpose that we understand immediately and have a vague idea of where it is heading. It is not heading there! (In most cases.) But the situation is immediately understandable, and therefore our ride along its path engages us rather than furrows our brows.

Also, he comes up with the worst game-show idea ever. Yes, that is also a positive review.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Wharton, Edith (House of Mirth)

This might be the most complex piece of writing I've read. And not just for its florid writing.

On the surface, a social commentary about the mores and dictates of late 19th century New York, it felt like much more than that to me. It's not as if any of the crazy shenanigans surrounding society - and by society, I mean any kind in any place - have disappeared. There are still rules, although they may have become more relaxed. There is still old money and new money and how people are treated if you come from one versus the other. And there are still problems in marrying or courting above or below your station - again, no matter where you come from.

The novel tends to age well, since it tells the story of society in general, not just that of New York in its time. It's as if nothing has changed, and our culture is not more enlightened 100 years further on. For instance, never does Mr. Rosedale appear that his manner and forbearing are not associated with the fact that he is a Jew. For all Wharton's obvious liberal attitudes, she was not able to bridge that cultural divide. Upbringing? Lack of education? We struggle with those to this day.

Far more interesting, though, is Lily herself. You want to whomp Lily over the head, bringing her to some reasonable sense of where her life is going because she cannot be reconciled with her own desires. She wants to be morally upright, but she also abhors anything not beautiful and expensive. That conflict makes it impossible for her to choose the right path, time and again. I understand how that could work in her head, but the ending makes you truly wonder if anyone would choose this path, lacking any foresight about where it can end. That makes her a true innocent, more than anything else, and I think it's likely that Wharton could never have told this moral tale without an innocent at the center.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sanderson, Brandon (Firefight)

It's my fate in life to natter on about how difficult second books of series are. Can we forego all that and get to the meat of the problems?

Firefight has the same tropes as the first volume in the series (Steelheart), i.e., young nerdy kid, with an aptitude for fighting Epics and a super-creative mind, who has a heck of a time creating appropriate metaphors (nice to know we have one thing in common). Obviously, he's meant to save the world in the end, and I don't think there are any spoilers in that. Why else would Sanderson make him the main character? Also, you'll see what I mean at the end of this second book.

But I think perhaps he's a bit too heroic in this book. Sanderson does his best to show that some things do require hard work in order to make an impact in the world (life lesson #149), but we're talking about fighting people with superpowers. It's just all too easy for David! We have to keep our protagonist alive, of course, but also too many difficult scrapes he gets out of too easily. And the denouement at the end is really bloody obvious. I continue to keep in mind that I am not the primary audience (young adult), but still! Ugh and bother.

Oh, of course I'll read the final book. It is Sanderson, after all, who's a better writer than most fantasy authors out there.

Monday, July 6, 2015

French, Tana (In the Woods)

Any book that keeps me up past my bedtime is worth more than its weight in salt. (Gold, salt, you choose.) Way past my bedtime. I couldn't stop reading, as the twists and turns kept coming, and I kept wondering what would happen next.

It wasn't perfect: I think French telegraphs her main "bad guy" pretty strongly. I believe that if you're a woman reading this book, that may be more obvious than if you're a guy, but that's simply a guess based on my strong reaction to the character. I also had a strong dislike to our main protagonist, again maybe because I'm a woman reading this book. At the same time, I found it astonishing that French could inhabit and personalize the experience of the main detective, who is a man, in a genuine and revealing manner. I may not have enjoyed his idiocies (and his constant need to explain how idiotic he was a certain junctures), but he felt like a real person, and that's not easy to achieve.

Mostly, though, I was truly heartbroken at the end. Because, surprisingly, the book isn't about archaeological digs and the reasons to keep them pristine, or the beauty and mystery of woods that we should protect and save for future generations, or politics just sucks all around, no? It's about our main characters, as it should be. And I will certainly be getting the next one of the series out of the library, but will hearing it in Cassie's voice break my heart even further?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stead, Rebecca (When You Reach Me)

I love a good last line.

At first, I wasn't enamored with this novel because it seemed way too obvious who the real hero of the story was. Then I wasn't so sure. Then I was sure again, but it didn't matter because by that point I was far enough into the story to enjoy the character and story development.

Stead owes a great debt to Madeleine L'Engle, and I can see that she's wanted to write, in essence, a tribute to L'Engle since she could remember reading "A Wrinkle in Time" as a young girl. I want to think that this was the only YA or children's sci-fi novel of my generation's time, but that can't be right, right? There have to be others. The only other one I can think of is "The House With a Clock in its Walls," but that's not sci-fi, that's gothic horror aimed at kids (what? yea, but it's fabulous). I think of all the riches kids have today and I'm so jealous.

I digress a bit. I ended up liking this hugely because Stead wraps things up in a nice neat bow - absolutely essential for this kind of story - but leaves you wondering about one little thing. Until the last line.

Friday, June 26, 2015

King, A.S. (Please Ignore Vera Dietz)

Part of me worries that the Printz Award only nominates edgy young adult fiction, and perhaps bypasses novels that are worthy but are a bit more mainstream. Then again, I don't know what I'm talking about because I don't read enough young adult fiction.

You'll see what I mean right off the bat - completely disillusioned, and obviously heartbroken, young woman trying to make it through high school. Peers, first loves, schoolwork, big social issues, it's all addressed. It seems important to the author to make sure she's smart and "does what's right" for the most part, or else we would not sympathize with her or her situation. Or understand that the moral of the story is that you shoudl be smart and do what's right. I often find YA to be like this - a leetle bit too obvious. But I am not the audience for it, and that's important for me to keep in mind.

There's no question that you do understand her plight, because those adults reading it were all kids, and we remember all kinds of heartbreak (perhaps not quite this dire). In my case, I really understood her plight because he makes her a pizza driver, and I was a pizza driver in my 20s. Everything you're reading about that? Completely spot on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thomas, Rob and Graham, Jennifer (Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell)

I really hope this is not the final book in the Veronica Mars mystery novel series. And it should not be the last one Jennifer Graham writes.

Her voice is fresh and invigorating, even as she's using somewhat tired tropes. It's full of cultural references, so no, these are not your grandfather's Elmore Leonard novels, but that doesn't make it any less appealing. She understands twists and turns, when to create them, and when to leave them alone. She still writes Veronica with internal monologue in italics, and that drives me crazy, but I understand why she can't not do that. I hope Rob Thomas recognizes her value and puts her front and center for the next umpteen of these books. Perhaps they're waiting to announce that because there's another movie in the works? One can only hope. (Please make it better than the first one, Rob.)

By the way, I almost had a heart attack in the last few pages. Those who have diligently watched the series will understand what I mean. Fear not. All is well.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

McCall Smith, Alexander (The Good Husband of Zebra Drive)

Not much to say that I haven't said many times before. I'm about halfway through this series, reading one every year or so, and they're just a breath of fresh air. The writing isn't stellar, the books are essentially the same each time - Africa! Botswana! traditionally built women! doing what's right! - but there's something about them that makes me gobble them up each time. It must be the love for the country shining through, which is something you don't see often in novels. On to the next one in a short bit.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Winters, Ben (World of Trouble)

And, of course, I was going to finish the trilogy. This is the best mystery series I've read in a long while. Even if the second book didn't fulfill my expectations, I had every reason to believe the third would. (See every diatribe written about second book problems.)

And he pulls out all the stops. Each and every situation in this volume made sense. The people you meet and the events that occur are complete tragedies in and of themselves. In one sense, it's like reading a series of short stories created into a novel - and only the best can do this well (see Olive Kitteredge). He extends the mysteries from the previous two novels into this one, and he makes sure you are allowed to feel for each character in the mysteries, even as you retain the sense of the doomed world and the oddity of caring about doomed people.

I did see the solution to the ultimate mystery coming (and by ultimate, I don't mean that asteroid), and I feel that he didn't obscure it as well as he needed to. It's obvious from the moment you meet the first character in that scenario, if you wonder about the potential for the scenario as much as I did.

Enough obfuscation, since writing anything revealing defeats the purpose of the review! Enjoy this trilogy and hope that he writes more like them.