Monday, August 18, 2014

Lynch, Scott (The Lies of Locke Lamora)

Checking the Goodreads record for this book, I noticed that Pat Rothfuss had given it 5 stars. He further explained in his review that since his first book came out at the same time as Lynch's, folks were noticing the similarities between the two authors. There's no comparison. Other than the fact they can each write 500-page-plus fantasy novels.

Rothfuss can tell a better story - that is, a discrete story that may have little to do with the book in hand. He puts a huge amount of feeling into his stories, and it really shows. But he's not a great plotter. Lynch, on the other hand, plots extraordinarily well but may not have quite the talent for knocking our socks off with the story.

I really liked this plot - of a poor orphan boy who learns the meaning of friendship and honor while thieving merrily along the way - and I really like the stories he weaves throughout - how he learned everything he needed to from his mentor, how his friend Jean becomes the best fighter around, how he navigates stealing what he can from the Salvaras - so I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Enough that I'm definitely getting the next one to read, soon.

But Lynch needs to work on the background. Oh, the Camorrans live in a city in the south with many watery canals and all Latin-based names? And the Valerans (sp?) speak a harsh language and come from the north? World building is harder work than it may seem, obviously.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thomas, Rob and Graham, Jennifer (Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line)

If you were a fan of the Veronica Mars TV series, you'll enjoy this better-than-average entrée into the now-official book series. (P.S. You don't have to have loved the movie to like this book, in case that's helpful.)

I say better-than-average because it is actually better than the average mystery. By average mystery, I mean something by Janet Evanovich or Lilian Jackson Braun. (Then again, they both started their respective series strongly, and this being the first book in the VM series, there's plenty of time to go downhill.) Weighed against those giants of American pop-culture mystery, Thomas and Graham's is most definitely heavier.

We start right after the events of the movie (again, you don't have to have seen or loved the movie to enjoy the book), and VM is getting the hang of her new life. There's much more Mac and Wallace and Keith than in the movie. There's very little of everyone else, including Logan. (Those of you who saw the movie know why.)

I enjoyed every twist and turn - and would understand if folks thought it too twisty - and being able to read about the ambience of Neptune as opposed to seeing it onscreen. The only thing I thought fell a little flat was the continual explanation of VM's inner thoughts - all her worries, concerns, emotional issues. And only because in the TV series we saw a way tougher character. I don't want to know that VM feels conflicted! I want her to remain tough as nails.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Weir, Andy (The Martian)

This book is officially for science geeks. If you're not a science geek, you're going to nod off and think it's terrible. If you are a science geek, you'll be playing along.

This is the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and everything he has to do - mechanically, electrically, botanically - to get back home. It's an intriguing concept, and there's no way to write it without giving numbers, equations and hard physical facts. Fortunately, Weir also manages to make it funny by having his astronaut be kind of a dweeb. A dweeb who can last that long by seeing the humor in his situation. I would bet that astronauts are like this - both insane and heroic - but you'd have to be a very special kind of astronaut to survive for a year and a half on Mars (even future Mars with all the bells and whistles and radiation shielding).

I inhaled it. The MacGyver aspect of this man's struggle with the elements was really fun - what will he come up with next in order to save his potato crop? create a bedroom for his rover? save himself from an airlock disaster? I'm not giving anything away. Weir throws everything he can at the man - because that's what you do in this kind of a novel!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mitchell, David (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet)

Mr. Mitchell is a very smart man. I feel very, very not-smart next to him. Having read two of his books now, I believe he writes fiction for the pun. Every opportunity he has to exploit the potential for a pun is taken. In fact, I would bet (but I'm not smart enough to determine) that he writes certain scenes to encapsulate puns. ("Let's see, there were 10 in that chapter, that's probably enough, next chapter!")

Not that I don't enjoy it. It's mounds better reading a story that the author is enjoying the hell out of telling versus one that is labored, overly trite, obtuse or any of a number of other plagues that befall authors.

This particular story is not as layered as Cloud Atlas, but it does have layers, so beware in advance. We are supposed to love our protagonist immediately because of his Christian, moral, upstanding ways - which of course are surprisingly similar to the thoughts and feelings of the denizens of his host country. The Japanese in the latter half of the 1700s, and their efforts to encourage and absolutely not encourage trade with the Dutch, sounds like a minute section of history. It is not. It is entrancing and mysterious and disgusting and bizarre and lovely and holy. Mitchell may have taken 500 pages to tell all that, but I dare anyone else to try.

And by no means miss the Reader's Guide at the end of the book. There are several pages devoted to the origins of historical fiction, how it can be difficult to write it, and why we all still love a good historical novel. You'll laugh out loud, believe me or not.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Demick, Barbara (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea)

It's almost unfortunate that Demick wrote this book before Kim Jong-un took power from his father. Stating, as she does, the extreme difficulties of managing survival basics in North Korea, and particularly the effort to dissuade public opinion that this is true, her opinion on how Kim Jong-un's leadership is progressing would be invaluable in regards to this book.

Having been a reporter in Asia for many years - and in fact, she cites her works in the notes repeatedly - she certainly seems to be the right person to have written this. The main thrust of it is to inform about the conditions in North Korea, particularly during the famine of the 1990s, that led to mass starvation, struggle and desperation, and caused an increase in defections.

Naturally, it's impossible to write this with zero bias, since Demick has not lived inside North Korea, only having visited what the North Korean government deemed appropriate to visit. But I don't see that the defectors she spoke with have any reason to lie about the difficulties of living and surviving in North Korea - except perhaps to further the agenda towards reunification, in order to finally be reunited with their family and friends. And since she includes defectors who didn't actually have reasons to defect per se, the descriptions of life in North Korea are that more substantial and trustworthy.

I would recommend this book. However, it's heart-rending to read about seeing dead bodies in the street, and homeless youths stunted by food deprivation, and the continued faith in the leadership through all of this. It's fast, fascinating reading, but it's difficult to read for those reasons.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Levithan, David (Every Day)

Actually, the worst thing about this book is that it's going to be a series. I'd say quit while you're ahead.

Reason being, this sweet little young adult novel does not need a follow-up. It contains itself nicely, and has a nearly-perfect ending, bringing all the story elements together into one thoughtful scene. The only thing I can think the author intends with another set of volumes is turning it into a creepier sci-fi thriller type of series - still for young adults (or whatever we are calling them these days), but not a romance.

Because the "reverend" is the only unresolved character among them all by the time you finish the volume. "A" inhabits one body per day, always moving on to another body, hoping not to impair or even affect the person during that day. Since "A" comes into contact with a variety of people, the book explores gender and personalities more than anything else, giving extra weight to being thoughtful, caring, loving - the usual themes of this kind of teen book.

You wouldn't want the next book to push the same themes, so I can only expect that it's going to try to mess with "A"'s usual rhythm. I think I'll wait and see what the critics think first.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Munro, Alice (Dear Life: Stories)

Alice Munro's collections usually knock me for a loop. They pack so much emotion into such spare, non-emotional phrasings that you are taken unawares by their power. There's no one else who can write about life - in the definitive slice-of-life mode - and make it seem as if you are living this life at the same time as the character being described. You are almost literally sucked into their world. Then - the chapter ends, and instead of feeling as if you've lost a best friend, you sock that story away in your heart and become immersed in the next one.

Munro writes about people who have made a wrong turn. Those turns are understandable, and the people are sympathetic. You almost don't wince to read about the wrongs they've done, you just become them as they journey - for a while - down the wrong path. And it either makes you feel better about yourself or worse. Either way, it's worth it.

With this collection, I didn't feel this as intensely. The endings of the stories felt more obvious, and I could see them coming for some time. Obviously, that lessens their emotional punch. They still live in my heart - the first story is still rattling around in there - but they aren't supplanting previous story collections.

However! And it's a big however. The last four stories are about her own life. Some perhaps not wholly factual, as she says, but it was clear to me as I started them that I've been dying to know more about her own life, especially her own childhood. Because that simply has to be a large factor in how she perceives the world and the people in it. Her reminiscences of town and country life in the 30s and 40s in Canada, her perceptions of herself at that time, the world as she viewed it then, and in particular her memories of her mother. These last four absolutely pack a special kind of wallop.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nix, Garth (Sabriel)

I'm having a lot of mixed feelings about this book.

On the one hand, it is so refreshing to read a fantasy novel - especially one that aims at kids or teens - that doesn't pander to its audience. This novel starts off fast and does not let up. You miss something as you go, tough cookies (especially if you're reading an ebook and it's hard to return to prior parts of the novel...). I love that there's no extraneous description, but jeez, you better like this story right away - it flies at you fast and there is no room for "getting used to" anything.

On the other hand, I just couldn't get into the characters. They felt briefly sketched, not fully realized. Sabriel is one more in the long line of girls left by their parents to fend for themselves, with skills they weren't really aware of (magical skills, duh) and thrust into extraordinarily difficult situations whereby they have to use those skills.

In trying to pinpoint what I specifically disliked, I think it's the lack of angst on the part of Sabriel. That's an odd thing for me to say because I have very little sympathy for whiny heroines, but even though there's some guilt and some sadness and some frustration, it didn't seem like a girl with this set of problems should be so, well, put together. Again, I think this may be the speed problem - "just like her right off the bat, darn it, because there's a lot more for me to tell you."

One of my fave Goodreads reviewers says the second book is better than the first, so I'll try that one in a bit. Hopefully, I'll like it a little more.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Butcher, Jim (Fool Moon)

Now that's more like it.

Apart from the troubles our dear Spike (James Marsters, not the character of the same name in the book, which gave me the giggles for its meta-ness) had with his breathing and gulping, the audio version of this 2nd book in the series is about 1000 times more fun than the 1st book in the series, which I read on "paper." It seems that Marsters, and his publisher - shouldn't they have been giving him tips?? - figured this out in later books as the audio segments are shorter. Poor man was trying to do 8-10 minute segments without a break! Superhuman strength, Spike.

The content itself was also more well-thought-out, rounded, better plotted, etc. I won't say better written. I still think Butcher rather stinks as a writer. For instance, if he mentions that "crime doesn't pay" in the next book, I will literally scream. But overall, these books are a really fun way to a) exercise b) work in the garden or c) do your physical therapy.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Smith, Alexander McCall (Blue Shoes and Happiness)

As I was reading, I was trying to figure out why this book seemed more enjoyable than the previous six. What I determined was that in this volume, Smith made his characters a bit more human than earlier.

Our protagonist - Mmmmmma Ramotswe - is more worried about her weight. Rra Polopetsi makes a fairly severe and devastating error. Mma Makutski and her shoes! So, even though this volume once again creates situations that are never life-threatening (well, okay, that snake) or life-ruining, and you never have to worry about a sudden shift into crazy or scary, you get a little bit more than usual anyway. Our characters are more loveable than ever because of their revealed foibles.

Plus, Smith will never give us a book that doesn't heap praise upon Botswana. I find that refreshing, and never dull.