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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Waters, Sarah (Tipping the Velvet)

In the end, I understand the reasons people seem to love this book. But I myself am not a fan.

I don't feel as if a void has been filled in my life. Perhaps there are some who were waiting for lesbian erotica that would make it to the mainstream. For those of us who weren't, this novel feels like it's only designed to teach us what it may have been like to be gay in the 1880s. I felt this particularly at the end when we learn more about the social leanings of the group of people our protagonist hangs around with. My ears pricked up - because that was fascinating and well-written and certainly what I expected in a novel about Edwardian England. Not what we got which was a sorry tale of a sorry young person who waited until the very end of the bloody novel to grow.

I suspect my exasperation with this tale may be far larger than others. And that that exasperation was mostly due to the middle section in which Nancy literally flings aside her comfortable life for purely sexual reasons. I just can't fathom such an action, and it pissed me off no end. It also made the inevitable ending feel cheap and flat.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

King, Laurie R. (Locked Rooms)

This is the only mystery series that I like reading out of order. And it actually does make a difference! In that, things happen in previous novels I haven't read yet that pertain to the novel I'm currently reading. For some reason, this doesn't ever bother me. So, I've read books #1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. (Thankfully, I'm now only missing two in the middle there.)

I find King's pretense of Sherlock Holmes being real (the fiction of him being real, which is fun thing number one) and him being married (to a much younger woman, which is fun thing number two) completely engaging. In a lesser author's hands, this would be the mightiest failure. I can imagine her agent quailing at hearing about this new series - "wait, you have a successful series about a lesbian detective with a background in theology, and now you want to mess with one of the classics - are you nuts?!"

Well, read it to believe it. She pulls these stories out of what seems like thin air, all the while giving them a realistic enough turn to make the 1910s feel like you're reading about today. Except for the Victorian-style language (and the plot settings), this would be entirely true. This particular story is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the ensuing fire and general mayhem. Plus it has a personal bent (ie, the mystery plot hinges on one of our main character's past), which makes us care more for the outcome.

Also, Sherlock and Mycroft like each other in this series. As opposed to what I consider the overwrought family dynamics of the British TV series.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Pavone, Chris (The Accident)

Somewhere in the middle of this mystery, the author notes the preponderance of unpublished manuscripts with extraneous writing, way too much description, run-on sentences. That made me laugh out loud.

If there's one thing Pavone knows how to do in spades, it's describe! This novel contains way, way, way too much description of the environment - about 80% completely extraneous. It's one of the more egregious examples I've seen of telling instead of showing. 

I mean, what happened to Raymond Chandler or Lawrence Block style? "This happened, and then this happened, and then, surprise!" That's how mysteries should be written. 

He is a fantastic plotter. The twists and turns are well created, I'll give him that. He, unfortunately, sets up the plot as if there's going to be some huge reveal and  nothing is ever revealed that you haven't heard or seen or read before. There's nothing unique here, therefore why set it up as if there were? These reveals end up being less than important to the plot, too. Bad form. 

I was going to read his previous, Edgar-winning novel, but I won't be bothering now. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sanderson, Brandon (Words of Radiance)

Is there anything Sanderson cannot do?! Besides the overarching awe you feel for reading what is a true EPIC (this is book 2 in The Stormlight Archive), there's also Sanderson's talent at quick-flipping between comedy, suspense, dramadramadrama, and, the most important thing, revealing pieces of the overall mystery. You will read a nice little dramatic moment which then, all of a sudden, morphs into a huge reveal. It just blows your socks off, never knowing what you're going to get next.

I truly am in awe of his writing. I wish I could say the same for some of his thought processes, particularly on homosexuality. I suspect that we have to take the good with the bad because what we love so much about his description of faith and God and religion in his books comes from the life he has lived in his own faith. I would really, really prefer that he wasn't misguided in his thinking about certain large issues in our world, but I'm not wholly surprised.

Case in point, you will never see a gay character in a Sanderson book. However, especially in this volume, you will see a great number of racial stereotypes that are well enough "drawn" that you won't immediately think of an Earth equivalent. (Although, Lopen? Well, that's freakin' obvious.) I would endeavor to say that the main point of this volume of The Stormlight Archive is about race and class, perhaps more about class. Kaladin is struggling so darn hard to understand his place in the world, and it feels more and more like he will become the main character of the entire Archive.

I like where the story is going. I like how the characters have changed and morphed and moved forward. I like that there remain mysteries. I especially like the little "author note" we got in the last chapter. I was, however, surprised at how different this book felt from the previous book, which makes me all the more eager for the next one. Any author that can change his tone from book to book in a series has a marvelous talent.

I don't doubt that 1000 pages is too long for most people, and it always make me quail when I see that, but I have a new method. I try and think of the one book as a series of 3 books. When I reach 33% I think "one book down"!