Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sanderson, Brandon (The Rithmatist)

This Sanderson was way better. I despair that I have started yet another Sanderson series - what am I up to now, four? - but I am glad I finally got around to this one. (In fact, I may give the rest of Mistborn a miss to concentrate on this one and Stormlight. Wait, there's only one left of Mistborn? Well, ohh-kay.)

I didn't expect Sanderson to actually bow to pressure and write something with true steam-punk flair! It shouldn't really surprise me, since his books are so very close to this genre to begin with (those Mistborn coats, as case in point). But here he takes it one step closer to something super geeky.

At first, it just makes no sense. Wait, I can draw a line on the floor in chalk and stop a bullet? Excuse me? But there's something about this book that isn't only a specific depiction of a faith-filled, and question-filled, world. I think it's because for the first time since Stormlight, I've read characters of his that are this enticing.

It's not perfect. I would have liked Joel to shut up already about not being a Rithmatist. I would have preferred a little less evil-looking professor. I would have far preferred being given more of a primer on what the hell Nebrask is, why it exists, what the history is there. He's sketched the world here, but at least the characters are fully realized.

And Melody. Thank you for writing Melody. Up with brassy, moody chicks!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Haldeman, Joe (The Forever War)

What was most fascinating for me about this classic was how fascinated I was by it.

This is straight-up hard sci-fi, no bones about it. Yes, it's also military sci-fi, and that's important in how it relates to other military sci-fi that came before and after, but at its core it is written by someone steeped in science. Because of how it's told, we feel a huge amount of empathy with the grunts, even when those grunts move up the chain of command. That was fascinating to me, because it's hard to write sci-fi (or anything) from the perspective of the "nobody" when that nobody keeps gaining more power.

There are some strange references to homosexuality for about half the book, and then it gets serious about describing the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality in the future. At first, I was a little horrified at how dated the book was feeling, and then I was bemused, and then I was fascinated. While it absolutely, definitely, no question is written by a heterosexual, it tries, in unexpected ways, to be open to differences in sexual orientation.

And lastly, it was fascinating because I was happy about the ending. Why should I be happy about this ending? It's a surprising way to finish a novel with a bummer of a denouement. It makes it seem as if we should be pleased about the handful of folks who've survived the entire plot. I think Haldeman knew that the readers fully understood the horrific nature of the plot, and that it wasn't worth drilling that home any more than needed. In the end, at least someone gets what they've deserved, and that's worth celebrating.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Atwood, Margaret (Oryx and Crake)

I was forced to put this book down because my loan ended, and by the time I did, I was a little irritated at the lack of progress. Atwood is generally fabulous at spinning a yarn, and maybe I was extra irritated because I always expect more from her.

By the time I got the loan again, we were starting to flashback to the school and work days, and while flashbacks can be even more frustrating in a narrative, in this case they were absolutely necessary. Snowman sitting on a beach, barely surviving and talking to the air was not creepy, it was boring. Snowman recalling his childhood - however seminal to the story, really - was as pitiful as sitting on a beach, etc., so also boring. You can't tell a post-apocalyptic tale without explaining how your protagonist actually factors in, and talking about his childhood goes nowhere fast. Snowman recounting his redeemable features as an adult - that I could get behind because it made me wonder what he had literally done to get himself into the mess he was in, not just why his family life was crappy.

There's nothing wrong with writing about what happens when viruses go haywire - Station Eleven is a more than excellent example, Stephen King's The Stand a little less so, The Walking Dead is a beast unto itself. But social and environmental moralizing and post-apocalyptic stories told together leave a bad taste in my mouth. Atwood works too hard at it, and there's too much "duh" and not enough nuance.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Sanderson, Brandon (Shadows of Self)

Unfortunately, another Sanderson that I feel like I slogged through to some degree. Why did it feel sloggy? It wasn't that there wasn't a lot of action, and there was nothing wrong with it taking me back into the world of Mistborn. I think that it boils down to these four things:
  1. I don't care about Wax! He's pompous and overblown and no one much likes him in the books either. Why should I, again?
  2. The theme of the book felt way too much like the ending to Battlestar Galactica (the remake). That is, the "here we go again" ending that everyone hated. Our protagonists are talking to the gods, and the vibe from them is "rats, I thought we'd fixed all this, but I guess we hadn't". No, no, no! I loved the trilogy precisely because it showed that even if you despair, there is still some hope things will get much better. And I loved thinking that the class system was fixed (too much to hope for, I see).
  3. It was a teeny weeny bit too religious for me. I love Sanderson's work because it talks about faith in such interesting ways. But, in this book, he seemed to be proving an agenda, and it was an agenda I didn't want forced down my throat.
  4. Also, quit it with The Village. The stereotyping is abysmal.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Doerr, Anthony (All the Light We Cannot See)

This book deserves pretty much every kudo it's received (including winning the Pulitzer). Sweeping, detailed, horrifying, mystical, intimate. It's incredible what Doerr's done here.

I'll admit right off the bat that Werner's story was not as captivating to me as Marie-Laure's. I'm sorry, Werner, but it's difficult to compete with a blind girl who's lost so much, living in such pitiful circumstances. Of course, there's no way Doerr could have written the book without opposing nationalities as main characters. He has to tell two sides or he loses credulity, a compelling narrative, and the ability to spin that aforementioned mystical tale.

I'll also admit that it's surprising to still be reading WWII stories and to be reading good ones at that. Yes, of course, one of the most astonishing tragedies of the world will always be re-told and attempted to be re-told with a different light cast upon it (be it fiction, non-fiction, sculpture, poetry, painting, narrative film, documentary, etc., etc.). But at least in film, it seems rare to see something truly original and moving. Visually, we recognize the impact of the setting, but we are often inured to its meaning in that format.

This tale transcends that with a thoughtful structure (both in terms of brevity of chapters and chronological juxtaposition of major parts), a fascinating rumination on the nature of connections (be they radio waves or more nebulous and fragile interactions among people), a way of pinpointing the horror of the war without dwelling on it (the most horrific for me was meeting the elderly Jewess in the elevator), and the general sensitivity to every character he creates (even Volkheimer). This is pretty much a must-read.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Stiefvater, Maggie (The Raven Boys)

It's pretty rare that I want to read the next book in a series right away, but Stiefvater is clearly a master of series writing. I'm only familiar with her solo book, The Scorpio Races, and I picked up this series on the strength of that writing. Now I better be careful or I'll scarf down all 4 in a row.

Stiefvater answers just enough of the mystery to make the ending of this first book palatable, and leaves just the right kinds of threads dangling. What in the world will happen to Adam? What is this mysterious connection between Gansey and Blue? What really occurs when you "disappear" someone by mistake? As in The Scorpio Races, I adore how she creates something that is magical but completely rooted in our existing world, so that you have to work a little to understand where the magic is occurring in the story and when you get your nose out of the book you still feel like you're in there.

I was surprised that she is also able to write using a different language and style. This world is a current one, in which people act like teenagers, wear usual teenage clothes, and live (mostly) regular teenage lives. It's not rooted in a culture of far away and super traditional. Of course, I loved them both, and I'll be sitting on my hands not to jump into the next book right away.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

King, Laurie R. (Garment of Shadows)

I'm kind of glad this one will take us away from this region of the world, finally. Much as I was intrigued by 1920s Morocco (in much the same way as I was intrigued by Jerusalem and Portugal), I would like to return to Dear Old England. (Not that I'm getting that, in that the next book is set in Japan, but at least the one after that is set in Britain.)

In addition, lots of 1920s colonial politics is just... boring. It should be very interesting reading about a past that has so many ramifications in how the politics of today play themselves out. But King is not able to make that connection as there is no opportunity to make any overt conclusion about the current political climate. (Ms. Russell is not a time traveler, after all.) I'm not greatly bothered by the fact that I am left to my own conclusions, but I would prefer not to read page upon page about the minute interactions between Northern Africa, France, Spain, and ultimately at the core, Britain.

Of course, the actual thrilling bits are quite thrilling, the bad guy is as expected, and there are more layers to the reveal than just him. We end up getting the full flavor of why the title of the book is what it is. Nothing surprising there. Ultimately, satisfying to a far greater degree than her previous book about fake and real pirates. So, onwards to the next one!

Sanderson, Brandon (Calamity)

For some reason, I didn't really care much about this final installment in the Reckoners trilogy. For some reason, where the characters were going and why they were going in particular directions wasn't enough to keep my interest. For some reason, the conclusion seemed foregone, like too much had been revealed already in the previous two books, so we aren't left to wonder about anything.

Maybe there weren't as many silly metaphors in this one. Or maybe the romance wasn't intriguing any longer. Or maybe the Professor's story arc was boring, because why should we care about him, again? The conclusion was both teenage cute and moralistic, as expected. But, I'd rather get the next installment of Stormlight Archive instead. He's doing far more interesting things in that series.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Satrapi, Marjane (Persepolis)

I wanted to re-read this for book club but couldn't find the time to do that outside of lunch time at work today. Panic! Where can I quickly scan this graphic novel so I can recall what I thought when I read it years ago. Oh, right, I work in a library, duh. Yay, libraries!

In many respects, I doubt this story is different from any told during a revolution. Young people's ideals are tossed about like ships in storms - you hear things, learn they are not true, get educated (formally or informally) about things that are more akin to the truth, add all those things together, plus anything you personally experience, and this becomes how you approach the world. In some circumstances, the truths you learn about are either vastly diverse or non-existent. Either way, you build a personal view of how the revolution affects you, your family and your country.

This book is a fascinating mix of all that with the bonus of clarifying and illuminating illustrations. These illustrations are starkly designed and drawn, which brings us closer to the terrifying aspects of this particular revolution(s). They also stop short of telling the whole story - meaning that there is another volume about Satrapi's childhood that completes the tale. The impact of the revolution on Satrapi can't be wholly felt unless both books are read.

Friday, May 6, 2016

McDougall, Christopher (Born to Run)

Not surprisingly, I both loved this book and was irritated by it. (Aren't I always saying things like that? I feel like I'm always saying things like that.)

I loved it because it was engaging, fascinating and seemed well-researched. It also had the funniest real-life characters I've read about in a long, long while. These ultra-marathoners are bonkers crazy! Drinking like a fish the night before and then running an ultra-marathon - reminder: this is anything that is longer than a marathon, so this could be 30 miles or 100 miles or anything in between - and finishing in 3rd or 4th and smiling the whole while. Who are these people?!

Which leads me to my second point. McDougall's premise is that we're all runners, since caveman times, we gave up running as a culture (a world) and ruined our lives, and we should all return to running (barefoot, if possible) because anyone can and should run. Mulefritters. I do running 5Ks and I really, really enjoy the camaraderie of these, but I don't love the running. I love swimming (so now you know why I do 5K races - there's no camaraderie in the water!) and it's absolutely right up my alley physically and mentally. It also happens to be one of the best sports/fitnesses for your body because it works everything in it. Apparently, after this book came out, McDougall developed serious running calf and Achilles problems from running barefoot. Yea, well, you wouldn't get those if you swam instead (you might have other problems, but not problems that will make it impossible to walk, much less run).

So, this is kind of a +1 for swimming as an exercise (sorry, couldn't help myself), but also just a wish that folks who write super-entertaining books about running (or any exercise) should mention somewhere (anywhere) in it that if you're interested in not being sedentary, don't forget there are lots of other activities you can try. They might get less hate mail as a result!