Sunday, December 4, 2016

Macdonald, Helen (H Is for Hawk)

I don't think I've read anything in a long while that is both erudite and a super easy read.

Macdonald has crafted something surprisingly special. This is not a thesis (i.e., her university thesis) in sheep's clothing, although it may look like that at the outset. It's a personal rumination on grief on the death of her father - but because her rumination involves buying a hawk and becoming a falconer (again), it's not your everyday foray into the process of grieving. She researches her own desire to buy a hawk to assuage her grief, and thus reads up on other falconers. Chief among these is T.H. White, whose story is nearly as fascinating as her own. (Aside: why in heaven's name are White's archives in Texas, of all places?)

She doesn't find a lot of similarity between herself and White - she ends up finding more disturbing similarities between herself and her hawk for a while - but his lifelong grief is a counterpoint to her own at the time. What you learn about White is eye-opening, but what you learn about hawks and falconry is absolutely the best part of the book. Even having seen falconry exhibits, I had no idea what it takes to be a good falconer, and I'm even more deeply impressed by those who spend their lives at this. (Of course there is controversy about the concept of taming wild birds, but she sidesteps this neatly, for the most part.)

She's a mess, at this point in her life, but it's an engaging, heartfelt, thoughtful and oh-very-British mess. I would love to hear where her life has taken her next. I'll read her next memoir-slash-set-of-essays-slash-research-project in a second.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ishiguro, Kazuo (The Buried Giant)

I suppose this book could have been more vague. What I mean by that is that it could have provided zero hints about where the story was headed, instead of only the most indirect of hints.

I do love Kazuo Ishiguro's writing, and it's been such a long time since I read a book by him. It may be unfortunate that I chose to listen to the audio version of this book instead of reading the digital bits because I was not as enamored by it as I may have been if I had been able to take my time over the phrasings and how the sections fit together. It's also true that the narrator of the audio version was, as does befit the novel, a very slow speaker. But, that meant that in order to listen to the whole thing in a drive to and from Chicago I needed to bump it up to 1.25x speed (sorry, Mr. Ishiguro and Mr. Horovitch).

The content itself captured my imagination. As usual, Ishiguro has added fantastical elements, and in the case of this novel he makes you wonder how many of those are true to his worldbuilding (i.e., real to this story). It's certainly likely that none of what you are reading is true! Other than the fact that there is a journey, and it's likely one with a tragic ending. I wonder if he wrote it upon the death of a loved one (or the dying of a loved one) because it has all the flavors of that kind of a tale (and I did go hear him speak about this book, but it's been a very long while since that evening).

I place the book at almost the same level as Neil Gaiman's gorgeously realized "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" (I loved Gaiman's more), meaning there's a great deal of power here, if you can tap into it. It just takes a little more work that it might for other novels.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lewis, Michael (The Big Short)

No question, this was difficult for me - as someone not a financial analyst and not understanding the complexities of Wall Street and its kin. Yes, I'd seen the movie, and now I will return to the movie to better grasp how Lewis created a narrative cogent enough for someone else to visually depict it.

Because, seriously, I had to have someone else who has both read the book and watched the movie twice help me through this book. Lewis wrote something obviously compelling to many - including the government trying to understand the crisis after the fact! - but it can be somewhat of a slog. I did my best to understand all the most important bits and pieces, but I'm not sure I will be able to tell you tomorrow what a CDO or a CDS is. This kind of fact-retention is not in my wheelhouse. If it is in yours, you will have an easier time; if not, don't work as hard as I did to understand every phrase.

Because, all told, the value of reading a Michael Lewis book is to see how deftly he makes his arguments. His style of writing is informal enough (and frankly, repetitive enough) that you will be able to repeat the main thrust of the argument in the same terms. This, in conjunction with a genius to take super-crunchy themes - his books will always be about math and statistics, I'll bet you - and make them (mostly) understandable to the layperson, is why his writing is so powerful.

With this book, we all know intimately the heartbreak this crisis called. If it didn't happen to you, it happened to someone you loved. Which is why everyone should read this - so that we can not forget the past as we move into the future.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Ryan, Anthony (Tower Lord)

Oh, Mr. Ryan, you did what with the last three words of this 2nd part in the trilogy?? I bow to your unending brilliance.

Mostly because for the rest of the volume, I thought half the time "ooh, this is interesting" and the other half of the time "meh, who cares". As befits part 2 of 3, Ryan has modified his format to include other protagonists - three more, in fact. In addition to Vaelin (who has a slightly smaller story than the others), we hear accounts from Lyrna, Frentis and (someone new) Reva. I admit to being completely confused by this to begin with - we start with Reva, so I was super frustrated that he was taking a different tack, and concerned that I'd never hear from Vaelin again. Once I let the story unfold - about a quarter of the book - this got easier to handle. But I never really got over my irritation at the change in format and what amounted to a series of battle descriptions. After a while, those get damn boring.

Especially because, well, you know that Vaelin is going to win! And all of his comrades are going to win, too. There's one decent surprise in the middle but otherwise the story doesn't have a lot of twists and turns. I did appreciate the detail of the siege, Lyrna's ruminations on what it takes to be royalty, and also the strange churning of the relationship between Frentis and the Lady in Red (that's just what I call her in my head; she doesn't have a name).

It's obvious I'll read that final chapter, and it's already on hold with baited breath. And not just because of that ending (he'll figure a way to free our protagonist, I have no fear) but because he has woven a complex world and I need to see how he unravels it.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Ryan, Anthony (Blood Song)

Which of these many fantasy series should I read? Why, all of them! Well, all of them recommended highly to me.

I do feel like I'm drowning a bit in fantasy, which are renowned for their preponderance of characters, so it can be difficult to keep switching between them so as to keep multiple series in play at a time. I wouldn't have started another one, actually, but this was highly recommended to me. It's a surprising tale - surprising because it seems like it's nothing at all different from similar medieval-history series. I can see parallels to Scott Lynch and also Tolkein, however this has a distinctly different flavor.

I'm not certain if this is because of how Ryan builds his mystery as he tells the plot, or for some other reason. It wasn't until I was a quarter through that I realized there were elements to the story that weren't being explained well enough, and that they would return at other points in the plot, with the assumption that you would remember why they were mysterious to begin with. All of this builds to the satisfying-but-sad ending, and then, as with all good trilogies, leans into the next book.

So, I started the second book right away. As I said: preponderance of characters to keep straight, so I might as well try to finish this while I have them all straight in my head.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Butcher, Jim (Grave Peril)

Butcher is back at it. Unfortunately, since it takes me so long to get through an audiobook, I find it a little difficult to remember the premise of where he started from. (There's a character at the end of this novel that I will never, in a thousand years, recall the origins of.)

We are treated to the same schtick, including Marsters intoning "this was the worst day of my life" several times and "I'd never been this bone weary" another half dozen times. I kid, but Butcher is prone to exaggeration, and although he's starting to tie things together better (now that he's on book 3), it's overly descriptive stuff. Perfect for audiobooks, really.

This book has less Murphy and more Susan. Less werewolf and more vampire (plus more ghosts). More Michael and less actual wizardry (weirdly). Less Bob, which is really too damn bad.

I have a lot of catching up to do to get to book 15, but never fear, I'll take it at the same excruciatingly slow pace, simply because I cannot do without Marsters doing the honors and I simply have little time for audiobooks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Conley, Garrard (Boy Erased: A Memoir)

This book was such a slog for me that I finished it on the way to work, the morning of book club. I waited until the very last second, obviously.

It's not that the subject matter isn't fascinating and horrific. The ex-gay movement was a special torture device for those unlucky enough to have lived through their workshops and events. For that alone, it's worth reading... a bit of it. You certainly get the flavor after 20 or so pages. The remaining 320 pages? They had little to no impact on me. I've been struggling to figure out why.

I believe what it boils down to is, first, his lack of a consistent internal narrative. He'll tell us that his parents made him come home from college on the weekends after he was out-ed. A few pages later he'll say that he and his college pals had nothing to do tomorrow (Saturday) morning so they could hang out all night. Eh? That's only one example, and it's a small one, but these built up over time and I ended up losing faith in what he was telling us. I'm certain memoirs are difficult - that there is much that you recall but can't place in the correct context. All the same, it's certainly possible to fit all of that into a consistent framework so that the reader is not confused by what's happening and why.

And second, I had great difficulty with his leaps of logic. In particular, when he's describing the most startling events, he muddles the narrative so that it's difficult to tell what piece of it he's describing. Especially during the rape - which I do understand must be so hard to recall and write about - he starts talking about pedophilia between his attacker and another victim. Pedophilia between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old? That's not even close to fitting the standard definition. Regardless, it threw me out of the description of the event, and I really wondered if he did that on purpose.

I do wish the epilogue had been a book in and of itself. Tell me more about your years since this abortive therapy, your interactions with your family, and especially how you lost your faith!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Galbraith, Robert (The Cuckoo's Calling)

Controversy notwithstanding, Rowling just isn't that fabulous a writer.

It's difficult to say that because I enjoyed the Harry Potter series just as much as the next person, however, there was clearly more to HP than a bunch of well-written characters. Because Rowling does know how to create characters we care a great deal for. It's the plot part that seems not well thought out.

Or, perhaps, it's too well thought out. I got bogged down so often in the incredibly complex details of who was where when and why. At times, I felt that the book was an exercise in memorization, and perhaps there would be a test at the end ("Please list three names in the book that began with R".) In some ways, I wondered if Rowling was obscuring through detail. As if she was thinking: "Hey, I'll make you forget why I created that character with dyslexia because I've just thrown a zillion names and places and dates at you. You're bound to forget!" This seems a disingenuous way to move a plot forward, and especially to get to the end of a plot.

Part of me does want to find out what happens to Cormoran and Robin, but most of me does not. If you absolutely loved the next two books, make me a case for reading them.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Novik, Naomi (Throne of Jade)

As second books often are, this one was not quite as good as the first. I forgive Novik for this because I love the world she has built. I do worry a bit that the series is 9 volumes long, and a friend who also loves sci-fi/fantasy said she got bored after about three of them. I think I should probably drag out my reading of them so I don't get bored too fast!

It's easy to see why that can happen - if only because the language of the period (the time of the Napoleonic Wars) is formal and seems quite stilted when you read it for a long while. Obviously, that's also part of the appeal. If only I could have been born in these times, when insulting someone involved long, drawn-out paragraphs said ever-so-politely, with which you had to tease the insult out of the words. It seems like an amazing thing to learn how to do (and it would slow us down a whole bunch if we did it today, which is a good thing).

In this volume, we move away from the dreaded French to the unfathomable Chinese. There's a deep mystery at the core of the book - which when revealed is not as mysterious as it seemed at first - and along the way we enjoy an extended sea journey with huge storms, sea serpents, other dragons, pretty much everything you can think of. I do, however, hope that we are not subjected to a sea journey on the return because there's only so much I want to read about a man and his dragon sailing halfway around the world.

I did actually get tetchy with Temeraire this time around! Although all his actions are explainable, I was pretty damn sure I wanted a dragon at the end of the first book. Now I'm very much less sure.

Brundage, Elizabeth (All Things Cease to Appear)

It's not even a love-hate relationship with this book. It's a hate-confused-more-confused relationship with the book.

I'm not a big fan of reading about people and relationships that are simply awful. I see and read about plenty of that in real life, and if you're not going to make these folks sympathetic then I just don't see why I should be reading about them. Especially if one of them is borderline sociopathic! I wouldn't have a problem with a book that tries to provide several sides to the development and continued existence of a sociopath - if done delicately - but this book is not that.

In fact, this book is all over the place. At its core, it's attempting to use Swedenborg (philosopher) and Innes (painter) as a backdrop to understanding a situation that seems to involve both ghosts and pretty damn bad marriages. You figure out how that backdrop works; I had enough trouble with it that I'm not going to try and explain it here. It's not that the book didn't keep my interest (for the most part), but it's the kind of interest that is all about waiting to see what happens next in the train wreck. I'd stop reading and want to shake myself physically to get all the bad juju off me.

The ending was both confusing and understandable at the same time, and I don't even want to finish this review. I just want to forget I ever read the book.