Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stiefvater, Maggie (The Dream Thieves)

A gratifying, but odd, second book to the series.

I think Stiefvater wanted to pump up the action a bit, since this book revolves around the one character from the previous novel that you ended up hating by the close of the book - Ronan. And what's clear in book 2 is that she's trying to take typical teenage boy activity, i.e., Ronan front and center, and suss it into something that works within her magical realism.

And it mostly works. In that Ronan is a fascinating character once wholly explained by allowing him to speak on the page. You get a better sense of why his home life is beyond bonkers and why what happened to his father matters so much in the worldview of the series. But the teenage boy activity - while also explained in those terms - was too over the top.

In addition, the creation of the Gray Man, and how his storyline comes to a close at the end of this book was utterly unsatisfying to me. Did we really need him? Did we need him just for Maura? If so, what was the ulterior motive to that? Is it only leading to something that's necessary in book 3? Because he was, well, gray, and therefore unknowable, Stiefvater can't paint him in any sort of detail. That's ultimately aggravating and nothing else.

But, yea, you can't drag me away from book 3. On the hold list right now.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hannah, Kristin (The Nightingale)

While I didn't think this was as stellar as All the Light You Cannot See, it's not really a fair comparison. These are novels with vastly different approaches.

All the Light You Cannot See is mostly about the similarity of experiences of citizens and soldiers on both the German and French sides. The Nightingale relies on true-life stories of French resistance fighters, those in it from the beginning and those who had resistance thrust upon them. I will completely agree with anyone who says that Hannah knows how to weave stories, because she kept me reading late at night, wondering what the next heart-stopping or unthinkable circumstance would be. I admire how she told parallel stories - both sisters in distinctly different circumstances and how they survived - and brought them together and apart as it befitted the storyline. She has built something wonderfully complex as well as mostly recognizable, and that is worth some kudos (for bravery, if nothing else).

I did wonder at her choice to include the concentration camps towards the end of one of the sister's storylines. This was barely 15 pages long, and that kind of short shrift is surprising in a WWII novel, if it's being told at all. I felt a little like Hannah had run out of steam but that she felt she had to add this in or it wasn't close enough to the truth of WWII, in general.

I also thought it was a bit of a cheat not to let on to which sister was telling the tale from old age, because I don't think that layer of mystery was necessary or added to the plot in any way. It also made me snort that a dying woman would insist on walking around Paris in high heels. But I did live in Italy, and that does seem to be the case on the continent. Nothing would keep you off heels on cobblestones, not even if you were dying!

Friday, August 19, 2016

King, Laurie R. (Dreaming Spies)

It's fair to say I liked this round better because it involved books, libraries and the Bodleian itself. Including whether it's at all possible to break into the Bodleian to swap out a reproduction for an original (ie, doing the right thing) which made my palms sweat (ie, feels very, very much like the wrong thing).

I also enjoyed King's take on Japan, especially the world of Japan when Hirohito was still Crown Prince. King sprinkles small reminders throughout of what US policy towards Japan at the time implied for the upcoming World Wars. As well as providing a lot of cultural information, to explain to a novice why Japan's customs may seem so odd to us Westerners.

The mystery itself was a bit too standard. It was clear who the real "bad guy" was almost right away, and the reveal of where the mystery book was hidden was truly blasé. But things got a little bit more twisty towards the end, also not completely unforeseen, but complex enough to be satisfactory.

Also, I'm nearly caught up! One book to go... until King writes her next one.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Novik, Naomi (His Majesty's Dragon)

Wow, it's been a long time since a fantasy book affected me that much. Especially a fantasy book about dragons.

It's because Novik knows how to create good characters. Strangely, her main human character is deeply loyal and empathetic to his fellow humans and dragons, but he lacks... enjoyment in things. In other words, he's a little bit too austere to be completely likable. I believe Novik has done this on purpose, to create weakness in her main character, but I'm not wholly convinced it has worked the way she wants it to. It's true that she's created that as well in her main dragon, who's just a touch too bloodthirsty and doesn't quite get the concept of loyalty to king and country right off the bat.

Novik worldbuilds well - the Napoleonic Wars with "aviators," that is, teams of men and women who ride dragons - and provides just the right amount of tension between the good aviators and the bad aviators (on both sides of the Channel). When the person you end up hating the most gets a bit of what's coming to them, you want to fist pump the air. That's surprising because I've read a lot of stories like this and not been as moved by these moments as in this book. This could be the effect of the book's voice - posh, and definitely 1800s, and building the plot slowly in layers - which belies its power in terms of storytelling.

I keep forgetting I finished the book, and get excited that I'll be able to sit down and read more of it, followed by deep disappointment. Fortunately, there are 8 more till the conclusion!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Atkinson, Kate (Case Histories)

I should be well familiar with Atkinson's style of über-description, and not be distracted by it at the beginning of the book. I do feel like she went to the school of "go off on a tangent when you get the chance" and also the school of "don't worry, the reader will love it". Only, I don't always love it. It makes reading the book go both fast and slow. Fast because that description is always fascinating, and slow because I get irked that she is not getting to the freakin' point.

Regardless, I did enjoy the novel, even with its bizarre plot. The first three chapters throw you for a loop (don't be dissuaded by them, though), and it's not even obvious until a few more chapters in that there is a protagonist to this story, and that he will actually be a central focus. Well, central focus is putting it a bit strongly - he will be integral to the completion of the story. Well, completion may be putting it too strongly...

OK, now I'm just teasing. It is, after all, a mystery and the best mysteries are not wholly finished. Especially if one is planning a series around them. This Atkinson does in spades. I didn't love the ending - but not because the story wasn't wholly finished. I just didn't like what she ended up creating as a lifestyle for Jackson (our protagonist), as if this was what he would always have wanted.

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.