Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Leon, Donna (A Question of Belief)

It's been quite some time since I read a Donna Leon mystery, but I've realized I can't read them more than once every 9 months. Here's why:

1. She invariably paints Venice in a horrible light, be it bureaucracy or trash or smelly canals or the deplorable influx of tourists or whatnot. Well, I have loved Venice all 3 times I've been there, I'm obviously a tourist, and I don't really want to hear how awful it is while I'm reading something essentially fluffy.

2. I like that all the 'good guys' like each other, but I've known that for 10 novels, so stop telling me it.

3. She's starting to enjoy the sound of her own voice too much, so we now have to read puns, overly dramatic scenes, and ridiculously complicated conversations in which every nuance has to be described down to the nth degree.

4. There's just too much heavy English literature sprinkled throughout. Everyone reads James or Pinter or Brontë, and no one reads something... like this, for goodness sake.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Whitehead, Colson (The Underground Railroad)

This is one of those books that I want to call "simply delightful" and it's simply... not the right phrase to use at all. But not because it's not a delight to read.

What I mean by delightful is the manner in which Whitehead's intent slowly makes itself known to you as you read. I'm fairly certain I did not start to wonder what he was up to until the end of the first major section, after the first trip on the underground railroad. I remember my eyebrows reaching to the ceiling, and putting the book down, and pondering for a long while. If you know me, you know that doesn't happen very often!

After that, it was taking his journey, in which he re-envisions the South, slavery, the resistance movement, and the entire railroad itself. The result of taking that journey is to, quite honestly, be put inside the shoes of blacks both then and now, to get a better feeling for hurdles and troubles that are not always commonly understood.

For instance, what would it feel like to live in Indiana at this time (or a slightly modified time)? Or, what would it have been like to live in a supposedly enlightened Southern state? If anyone is able to create a book that engages the reader and teaches these carefully crafted concepts at the same time (as opposed to the last Pulitzer winner I read...), Whitehead is that man. And, if you've never heard him speak, absolutely go do that as well.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Nguyen, Viet Thanh (The Sympathizer)

This is obviously a super important volume in the history of American imperialism and aggression. I completely understand that, and I get that it needed to be written. But... it's bloody tedious.

The novel is written by a professor, and while the writing is absolutely a cut above average, it's once again my least favorite kind of novel. The kind wherein the author chooses an "important subject" and uses the novel to relay all the concerns about that "important subject," creating a plot that sets up the scenarios needed to teach about this "important subject". When you're done reading it, you feel like you've just taken a class and deserve a certificate for having finished it. I think these novels are very hard to write because they take a lot of finesse so that they don't seem like a lecture.

Nguyen gets most of the way there by creating a confused character, a double agent in the post-Vietnam war era, someone with real zeal for doing the right thing but not able to achieve it. However, there's just too much being tried here: the descriptions of the differences between America and Vietnam are overwhelming and repetitive, the objectification of women (especially Vietnamese women) is sadly behind the times, and the necessity of constantly having to remember who "won" that war and thus which side the character is really on is exhausting (and perhaps that was the point).

If the purpose of the book was to teach me about the Vietnamese-American experience, unfortunately, I think it missed its mark.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hawkins, Scott (The Library at Mount Char)

Such a delightful romp! Enchanting! Heartwarming! Playful!
Nope. Not in the slightest. I still liked it hugely.

This is hands-down the oddest fantasy novel I've ever read. Best one-line description of the plot: a god passing his powers to the next generation, which he built through some of the most awful shenanigans you can imagine, such that this power transfer is not even close to smooth.

It's mostly black comedy, mixed with some truly horrific imagery (you could call it horror, yes), and a bizarro plot that meanders for literally 2/3 of the book, and then solidifies itself during the final pages. All in service to a strange concept that doesn't look like it's going to have an ending that we appreciate. Also, that 2/3 mark? That's when the book seems to strangely... end. Only to start up again.

Yes, I'm recommending this, but with lots of caveats. Bear with it? No, that's not really it. It's engaging from the get-go. Take a chance? There are enough mini-stories being told very well that there's no chance to take. Forget about the plot and just take the journey Hawkins gives to you? Yes, go with that approach and I think you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hanagarne, Josh (The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family)

You know I'm going to love a book written by a snarky librarian. What's fascinating here is that it's written by a librarian from the Mormon faith who lifts weights and has Tourette's syndrome.

My favorite part is actually the end of the book, where he showcases more than a remedy for Tourette's (if you can call it that) and instead something we can all get behind, as we move through life. I can't say much or it will give away all that uplifting joy prematurely. (See, now you really want to read the book.)

There were some spots that dragged, chiefly, when he talks a little bit too much about how both weightlifting and libraries are fabulous and wonderful and here's why and did I tell you enough about why yet? You better believe I think libraries are the bee's knees, but don't bore your readers. He works pretty hard not to - keeps it rather engaging - but each of these sections just goes on a bit too long. I enjoyed his childhood memories far more, and was definitely intrigued by his mother's parenting style, his faith and what it meant to him, and what it was like to grow up as a kid with Tourette's.

It isn't until far along into the book that he reveals that his writing started by blogging, which is obviously how he got this book deal. I appreciated that, since other books by bloggers seem to showcase how they got to this point. Writing a real book! I'm real now! Achievement unlocked! So, that was refreshing.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stiefvater, Maggie (The Raven King)

I had a strange relationship with this final book in the series.

Mostly, I just wanted it to be done. It felt to me that Stiefvater was told to write a full-length novel when she really wanted to write a novella as the last book. There were too many scenes about the same thing. Oh, Cabeswater is in trouble? Golly, I couldn't tell. You already wrote 5 scenes about Cabeswater going through the wringer in this book, and one more isn't telling me anything more. Gosh, is Gansey upset about his approaching death? Holy cats, who wouldn't be?! Didn't you already tell us this at least a dozen times since the book started? It got sort of... dull over time.

Also, did she change up the narrative without a word of warning regarding Ronan and Adam? Have I been oblivious for 3 books? Does this bother anyone else? I like that she went in this direction, but it is not fully fleshed out, and shouldn't be just an add-on to the whole story.

And one last thing - why does Henry come in as a character only in the last book? He's appropriately sarcastically funny and does seem like a "knight" to Gansey's "king", but does he have to be this naive about the storyline? Wouldn't it have been better to include him earlier so that he isn't quite so much of a third wheel? I felt kind of bad for him during the last chapters.

I was, of course, hugely pleased with her intent in the ending, and I enjoyed Stiefvater's words as much as I normally do, but I wish I hadn't left this series with such a feeling of disappointment overall.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dunn, Katherine (Geek Love)

I... have no idea where to start. Except to give the warning I've been giving to others since I started reading the book. Which is to bear with it. To be explicit, bear with at least the first 25 pages. If you think you can't handle it after that, feel no shame. This book is the definition of something that is not for everyone.

Here, I'll help. This is a book about a family of freaks. Specifically, the parents in this family worked their darnedest to produce children with physical abnormalities. They owned a circus, and needed performers (although I don't think that's the entire reason they wanted a family of freaks). The novel's plot revolves around one of the children, her childhood in the circus, her relationship with her extremely twisted brother, and the life she had many years after the circus.

My problem with the book isn't the plot. That is actually somewhat standard - complex familial relationships, personal growth and understanding, a little bit of a mystery, and some form of closure. It's the strange assumption that what we are reading is normal. Well, not so much normal as "to be expected". That this odd world these people live in is playing out right now in the American heartland, and this book just showcases it. I don't think that's all of it, though, because the ending to the novel does recognize the apparent "wrongness" of it all.

I expect Dunn does this on purpose - hides her own feelings for this world she's created. Except, I am uncertain what kind of take-away she wants me to have at the end. Having read about her life, it feels as if she'd welcome a real-life example of this, and be giggling with glee at the discovery.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sanderson, Brandon (The Bands of Mourning)

Actually, this was a far better post-original-Mistborn novel than the previous two. Probably because Sanderson is finally getting to the point. Frankly? It's taking way too long.

I mean, I spent all of the last book thinking: "Nope, we can't have Wax and Marasi together, that would upset the balance of things." and "Because Wax and Steris, yup, they really have to starting getting together, and what's the goldang holdup??" and "Wayne is so freakin' annoying and never really funny enough when he needs to be." and "Is there a bloody point to all this hearkening back to yesteryear and where Wax has hailed from??"

So, thankfully, Sanderson manages to answer some of this in this 3rd novel of the post-original-Mistborn novels. Enough so that you're satisfied by the answers, and still looking forward to the next one because it's finally going to finish this off and answer all the questions. It sure as heck better.

More annoyingly, because this novel was better, I really wanted to read post-original-Mistborn novel 3.5 because it apparently answers even more than all the questions - and I can't! It's not a digital download any longer! It's been sucked into a compendium of others of the same ilk and is only available as a print volume! What!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Atkinson, Kate (One Good Turn)

Well, she's still a delight to read, if you can get over the constant spiraling into other aspects of the story. Often you can't determine if she's telling you valuable information, but nearly always she is. As usual with Atkinson, you need to bear with it because it does bear fruit.

I will admit I was more impatient with her writing style this time around than the first time. But the story was more fun in this installment. It's as if she decided that she would throw caution to the wind and instead create something truly bizarro. I think that along with it, she threw some police procedures to the wind as well, which makes it a little more unbelievable than usual. It also didn't have the creep factor that the first one did (the first one's spookiness did a lot to keep me going through all the interrupting prose).

I like Atkinson's writing enough that I'll bear with the next one, but if it is even more crazy, I may move to the TV series instead.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hawkins, Paula (The Girl on the Train)

In the afterword, Hawkins thanks all the commuters on her London train. My guess is that she's thanking them because she noticed how few folks actually look out the window, and it got her thinking about what might happen if they actually did look out the window...

This is not the best book I've ever read. It was entertaining in a Dan Brown sort of way, replete with thrilling chapter endings and some large leaps in logic for the purpose of the plot. For instance, there were far, far, far too many instances of  Rachel happening to end up near her ex's house, which became both obvious and tedious towards the end.

The book strums a single note throughout - that of the ineffable sadness of a life without children and how that can lead you to do all sorts of awful things including falling into alcoholism - but also seems to be plinking the piano on the theme of men being physically stronger than women and what that can imply. For those of us who don't have kids, that first note can get boring quickly, while the second note seems overwrought. Especially in light of how the book wraps itself up. What I'd really like to bitch about I cannot do without giving away the entire conclusion, but anyone finishing it will wonder why we were led to believe a certain marital bliss when it was apparently not true.

I doubt I'll watch the movie, even though I find Emily Blunt a surprisingly forthright actor with an uncomplicated style. Which would be quite interesting to watch in a portrayal of an alcoholic.