Sunday, December 31, 2017

Gyasi, Yaa (Homegoing)

It would have been effortless for Gyasi to have created something trite. There are many novels about the slave trade, and many novels about experiences in both Africa and America as a result of that.

First, Gyasi creates the right kind of structure - a genealogical one, which allows her to tell multiple stories across multiple generations. Then she adds one more layer to that by telling both the stories of those who remained in Africa and those who were shipped to America, and putting them side by side throughout the novel.

Don't miss the many opportunities to understand what the African experience was like (which in many stories was brand new to me), and don't miss the fresh perspectives that Gyasi brings to the American experience. Her writing is stellar; so are her insights.

It's likely you'll get to the final chapter and be ready to scoff at her conclusion, but you will know better because of the strength of her writing to that point. She may have created a somewhat mystical ending, but that downplays the power of her craft. It's not at all mystical; it's the unveiling of truth.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Penzler, Otto (Murderers' Row: Baseball Mysteries)

There is very definitely one best story in this book, and you should save it for last (even if it's not the last story in book).

First, though, you must love baseball to read this book. There are at least two jokes regarding how difficult it is to remember the infield fly rule (don't ask me how the rule works, I still haven't got it down). Plus any number of complete descriptions of plays, sides, and innings, and liberal seeding of statistics. To be clear, you can love baseball without understanding every rule (case in point right here), but you probably love baseball in some part because of those rules. So, you'll know if this book is right for you.

Since this is a collection of mystery short stories, none of the stories are particularly involved regarding the mysteries themselves. The writers have worked at compacting the plots they've chosen, which works to the advantage of everyone: editor, writers, readers. I was also surprised at how many different styles were employed, and how often the conclusion was at least partially surprising.

That best story to save for last? The Robert B. Parker story, of course.

(Full disclosure: I only read half of the stories, those chosen by hubby as the best.)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Greenwood, Kerry (Flying Too High)

The next in the delightful Ms. Phryne Fisher series. I just looked and I see there are 20 of these novels! We'll see how far I get before they aren't delightful enough any longer.

It's funny how I can't recall particular TV episodes that mirror the book. This one entails airplanes - which I distinctly remember factoring into at least one episode - but also a long sequence of Phryne not driving her sporty car and instead riding surreptitiously on the back of one. You'd think I'd remember that part! The second part of the book revolves around a nasty husband, a misunderstood son, a bunch of kids (and a cat), and a female artist. Yup, I should remember that plot device, also.

Of course, the books and the episodes seem to be quite different. For one thing, Ms. Fisher's bohemian nature in the books is way more eyebrow-raising than in the TV series. And the regular characters are not what I expect them to be when I'm reading them (Bert and Cec in particular). But the wrap-ups are very much the same - very genteel, always including creature comforts, and with the bad guys always getting their comeuppance and our faithful companions getting their rewards.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chambers, Becky (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet)

What fun! Another fun space opera series! Actually, it's hard to tell if it's going to be a series. I notice there's only one sequel and no discussion of another book after that. A girl can dream.

The absolute, hands-down, brilliant part of this book is that its core concepts are firmly part of our current times. Almost every plot device involves something that has caused a lot of social unrest in our world (eg, race relations, marriage equality). Chambers creates an environment in which humans have joined a galaxy full of other species, and, lo and behold, humans are not the best at everything. In other space operas, we always are because of our sense of fair play or our striving for new avenues. In this book, we're less equal than the rest because it's taken us a lot longer to be accepted into a future that doesn't have problems with personal space or rigid family hierarchies (vastly different among the other species). Granted, there's still plenty of conflict. However, it is downright refreshing to read a space opera that doesn't revolve around "humans are best" and "guys are even more the best".

Plus, the whole crew of this spacecraft like each other a ton, and when they don't like each other, they work it out. They treat each other like family - a lot like the Firefly family, but not because they are not all, you guessed it, human. Also, did I say it was humorous? It's freakin' humorous, people.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Corey, James S.A. (Abaddon's Gate)

Finally, Corey is moving things along at a quicker pace. They take almost no time to set up the new characters and place them at the far reaches of the solar system where the bizarre contraption from Venus has moved. And then they create another bonkers scenario - which does end up clarifying a great number of things across the story arc - that moves at an ever faster pace to conclusion.

Of course, overall, Corey publishes a book a year, and that has to be a factor of being a writing duo instead of a single writer. Naturally, you can write twice as fast (for the most part). Also, I imagine - based on how this book follows the same structure as the previous books - that each writer takes two characters, drafts that half of the book from their perspectives, and then they marry them together in the end. That's likely a simplistic view of how a writing duo works! Setting the arc, the plot of each book, the tone, etc. obviously takes time working closely together.

Regardless, I expect some readers will be deeply disappointed by the reveals in this book, mostly because they don't reveal hugely unique ideas. To them I say: this is space opera! In the end, all space opera has one common theme - multiple cultures vying for power across the galaxy and/or universe. This book simply pushes Corey's agenda further in that direction.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Grafton, Sue (Y is for Yesterday)

In this installment, Kinsey contends with the villain from "X" in addition to trying to solve an ages-old mystery that has most of the characters still alive and mostly well. It's as engaging as all her more recent novels, with the usual cast including Henry, Rosie, her apartment and the neighborhood bar.

However, I didn't love the arrangement of this one because each of the flashbacks to the characters' high school days sounded too perfectly contrived. The dialogue was too emotionally on target and the situations seemed meticulously crafted to show how smart and self-aware they were. As well, the back-n-forth attitude of the one girl who was sexually abused - which is likely common - was not well enough realized in print. Which made it seem less than authentic.

I think she tied this one up with too neat of a bow, but it's likely she's wiping the slate clean in time for the final dance. It's probably safe to say that most of the mystery-reading population is vastly curious about how she will finish off this series. What ending will she give our quirky but lovable heroine?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Scalzi, John (Lock In)

Never wait so long to write a review... I remember the basic intent of this book, but not the essentials. As a series, though, this is going to be a good one. Scalzi is joining the ranks of brave sci-fi writers who base their plot around a murder mystery. (In general, the joining of genres exponentially increases the difficulty of writing.)

The book holds to the three basic tenets of sci-fi mystery writing: complex science, convoluted plot, and fully-fleshed-out characters. (OK, that last one should be true for all genre writing.) That convoluted plot gets a little difficult to follow towards the end - since some of the characters are human minds in robot bodies and some are flesh-n-blood humans, you have to remember who is of what type to follow how the mystery works itself out. The science is fascinating, in thinking of a world that includes these different types of humans and how society has adapted (or not adapted) to them. In some ways, Scalzi has simplified this. Since the human minds can jump into robot bodies in remote parts of the world, I can't imagine the jarring effects of that aren't more of a societal concern.

The writing is, as usual, Scalzi's special blend of explanatory mixed with humor. He never dumbs things down for the reader, but he recognizes the need to interject humor so his books are not dull tomes. For me, I'd appreciate him dropping The Old Man's War universe (which he's rather beaten to death, so he may very well have) and starting anew with this world.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mistry, Rohinton (A Fine Balance)

It's probably been a very long while since I read a book that is both utterly engaging and downright upsetting at the same time. What I mean by that is that I had to force myself to put the book down, but every 100 pages or so (it's a long book) something horrific would happen and it would shock me enough that I was in a state of constant worry as I continued reading.

OK, this makes it sound like it will cause you too much stress to read the book. That's not your takeaway here - the book is phenomenally well written (or I wouldn't have wanted to keep reading). How much do you know about 1970s India during the time of Indira Gandhi's reign? What Mistry does is use that as a backdrop for the lives of 4 main characters and a host of additional (but not minimally described) characters. I'm fairly certain his main goal is to provide insight into what Gandhi's reign did to India and its peoples. But it isn't the only one.

And that's where I lack the required knowledge to really understand his intent with respect to one particular character. I won't give away which one (and if you read the book, you'll know which one I mean), but I would venture to say that he gives three of the main characters happy endings (sure, you can call them "happy enough" endings) but one character a distinctly unhappy ending. I am under the impression that this has nothing to do with Gandhi's reign, but more to do with each character's upbringing. And in that case, what impression should I leave with? How does that fit into the story?

I certainly don't want my noodling to dissuade you from reading the book. If I don't get all of Mistry's intentions, the writing is far and away a good reason to read it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Rowell, Rainbow (Eleanor & Park)

Rowell has me intrigued now. The first book of hers that I read (Landline) was kinda wacky, but I loved its twists and turns. This one is very, definitely, absolutely forthright - it cuts to the heart of so much teenage angst.

While I didn't relate to every single part of the story, the concept of opposites attracting, and attracting strongly, is an extraordinarily powerful message in this day and age. Eleanor and Park couldn't be more different - what they've experienced, how they live their lives, how they look, etc. And yet they still have strong attraction to each other, and what's more, are able to find a ton of common ground about what they like and don't like. That message needs to be shouted from more mountain tops.

One thing that distressed me in the acknowledgements was the intimation that the stressful home life Eleanor has to contend with is a home life that Rowell herself experienced. Having now read some interviews with her, it seems quite clear that is not true (she calls her stepdad "great" in one). But this is an example of how deeply realized her characters are. They leap off the page and into your brain and you're utterly convinced that the author has lived through this, or how can it be that well realized?

For those who have already read the book, regarding the words on the postcard... I do not want to be in the "I love you" camp because that's too... trite. On the other hand, Rowell herself says the words are hopeful, so I'm trying to figure out what they could be. "See you soon" would be nice!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Fey, Tina (Bossypants)

Don't doubt me, I love Tina and Amy equally. But I love them for different reasons. Tina - you're the awesomest writer, but your TV series are simply... odd. Amy - you're a pretty terrible writer, but your TV series are the BEST EVER CREATED.

Now that that is out of the way, more on this book. Of course, I loved it! Tina promoted her themes galore, showed folks how comedy is done, gave more than a smattering of background, didn't devote a whole chapter to Amy but incorporated her correctly, and was generally genial and assertive throughout. In other words, you get the full flavor of Tina in this book.

You also get quite a lot of play-by-play about the Sarah Palin portrayal. Perhaps a bit too much? I understand it's essentially what launched her to fame. (Although I don't think more people watched 30 Rock as a result. You have to be an Alec Baldwin fan to do that. How are there not more Alec Baldwin fans in the world?)

I have to say, though - I'm waiting for the day someone mashes up Tina, Amy, Felicia and Mindy's books into one, to showcase the full flavor of female comedians from this day and age.