12.23.2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk
About Kevin
Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while. Even though you know what's going to happen at the end, Shriver throws in a heartbreaking twist that, honestly, nearly had me in tears. Along with the dread the Shriver builds and builds as the narrator approaches that climax, that narrator also meditates on blame, hindsight, and--above all--guilt. Reading the dust jacket, you might think that this book is a product of its time, of those few years there were so many school shootings at the end of the millennium. But I think this book has a timeless quality in that, we are always going to wonder where human evil comes from. We're still wondering about Jack the Ripper and Hitler, aren't we?

The narrator, Eva Khatchadourian, tells her story in a series of letters to her husband, Franklin, over the course of a handful of months. She tells him of her life now, after that Thursday. (She always puts it in italics.) Once, Eva was a successful travel writer, with her own company that published a series of books for low budget travelers. In their mid-thirties, Franklin started to pester Eva about having a child. Eva gave in eventually, but she confesses to serious reluctance. She was never maternal. She didn't know what she was doing but, to a certain extent, she fell for the propaganda that of course she would love her own child.

Kevin, it becomes clear, is a sociopath. Even as an infant, he delighted in tormenting just about everyone. The first nanny quit after a day and they were blackballed from the agency after two years. Because Kevin behaves differently around him, and because he so wants to have a perfect family, Franklin believes that there is nothing wrong with Kevin. He thinks that Eva is exaggerating or is always thinking the worse of the boy when she tells him what the little spawn is up to. Reading about Kevin's early years, I was reminded of my mom's stories from kindergarten about the the boy in her class who, even at the age of six, had the look of pure evil about him.

Later, Eva writes about a civil suit lodged against her by of the parent of one of her son's victims. Because that parent so desperately wants someone to blame, they allege that Eva's bad parenting is the cause of Kevin's actions on that Thursday. Eva admits that she was a bad mother, but I think that's only because she thinks that good mothering is natural. She was not a natural parent. Part of that admission, I also suspect, comes from the fact that she can't like the little jerk. She doesn't love him the way other parents love their kids. But when you have a kid like Kevin, how can you teach him to feel empathy? To care about the feeling of others? She did everything she was supposed to, and Kevin still killed 11 people at the age of 16.

Eva was one of the few people who could see through Kevin's facade but, how can you predict something like that? He was very, very careful and very, very cunning. Even with hindsight, there were only a few things that could have tipped even the most suspicious person off. When I read Kevin's line from that day ("Sure you don't want to say good-bye to Celie one more time?" (p. 365)), even I read it as just another sarcastic comment. Now that I've finished the book, that line chills me to the bone.

This book, in my reading, asks two vexing questions (with a lot of corollaries). First, what does it mean to be a good mother? What's normal when it comes to being maternal? For Eva, with her deep seated reluctance, it never comes naturally. She expected to love him when he was born. (But again, with a kid like Kevin, can you ever hope to be a normal parent?) She freely admits that she resents the little shit. To the extent that Kevin is able to feel, he seems to resent her right back. And there is little doubt that Kevin is aware of what he is doing when he torments others. He knows what he is doing is wrong.  He destroys a room that Eva put together with care, because he can't understand why people get attached to anything. He doesn't like anything or anyone, but Eva is the only one he will admit this to. Later, he begins to commit small acts of violence against other kids (always without witnesses and no one can ever definitively prove anything). He talks a girl with eczema into clawing at her own skin until she bleeds. He kills his little sister's pet and then, worse, destroys her left eye with drain cleaner. And then, there's that Thursday. So again, the sub-question again, how do you teach empathy to someone who is incapable of feeling it? How can you punish someone who isn't attached to anything and who you don't dare hit?

Parenthood is a source of serious anxiety for people. In my observation, there are so many parents trying so hard not to mess up their kids. There are those parents who compete with each other to be the best, to raise the best kids. With all this pressure, is it any wonder that Eva feels the stress she does? That she feels such severe guilt? She seems to get as much punishment from the people of her town as Kevin does in his juvenile facility. For some reason, no one seems to see the depths of Kevin's sociopathy--perhaps because everyone gave the little schmuck wide berth when he was on the outside, as if they sensed something was seriously off about him.

The second question that this book addresses--though not in such depth as the questions about motherhood--is: where does the evil to commit acts like this come from? Is it purely mechanical? Are sociopaths missing parts of their brain? Or are they created by their upbringing and their environments? As I said above, we're still asking this question about some people. And I don't think we'll ever get a definitive answer. In the case of Kevin, Shriver shows that some people were probably always going to go bad. They were born that way. No amount of care or mothering will change them, because sociopaths don't think the way we do. Perhaps with some criminals, upbringing does play a part.

Like with most people, who you are is probably a combination of both nature and nurture. But that still doesn't answer the question of where real evil comes from. The most clinical answer I can think of is that they're missing parts of their brains or psyches, especially those parts that allow us to feel for each other, to make attachments, to sympathize. They're probably also missing those parts that make us want to belong, to follow society's basic rules. Without at least those two parts, there's nothing to stop them from committing whatever atrocities they can think up.

 Throughout the book, various characters ask Kevin why. He gives as many answers as he has askers. The only time I think we get close to a real reason is when Kevin admits to his mother that it's been so long that he doesn't really remember. To me, that means that it wasn't just one thing and/or there was no reason that we can really understand. Kevin has an evil in him. It was going to come out sooner or later.  

We Need to Talk About Kevin is going to haunt me for a while.

12.18.2011

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife
The Tiger's Wife
Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is a book you could spend years unpacking. There is a central plot, but the action of this book curls around that small plot so that what really grabs you is all that back story rather than what's happening in the novel's "now."

The plot that frames the novel is simple enough to explain. A young doctor, Natalia, is on her way to an orphanage after her country split itself apart in a war when she learns that her grandfather has died in a small town. Her grandmother is adamant that Natalia retrieve his belongings, which she does after tangling with some local gypsies who are in the process of locating and reburying a long dead cousin. While all this is going on, Natalia tells her grandfather's story, of his meetings with the deathless man, and his relationship with the tiger's wife of the title. Through telling his story, Natalia tells the story of her country during the twentieth century, a story that reflect the history of any number of southern Eastern Europe.

 Two things really struck me about this book, and they both have to do with the role of specific kinds of stories. First, there is the recurring theme of superstition. Superstition is everywhere in this book. Aside from the fact that this book is very definitely set in the twentieth and possibly early twenty-first century, there are scenes with villagers that sound like they could have happened any time in the last thousand years the way they go on about devils and rituals.

Superstition provides an explanation for crop failures and too long winters. The tiger that roams the ridges and kills livestock is a devil, and the deaf-mute girl they call the tiger's wife is his accomplice. The tiger and his wife give the villagers a tangible target for their worry and their hate, rather than the actual, complex causes. Even in Natalia's present, superstition is still there. The gypsies she tangles with are reburying their cousin because they believe that cousin is haunting them and causing their children to get sick. When she tries to reason with them, she hits a brick wall time and again until she gives in and helps them (though she does it on the condition that they bring their kids into the local clinic for treatment).

Obreht shows the reader repeatedly how stubborn people are about their traditions and beliefs. The only way that anyone can achieve a real solution is to manipulate those superstitions. Said another way, you just have to go with it to get anywhere.

Second, there is the inescapable grasp of history. This country is steeped in it's own history in a way that I don't think a lot of Americans have felt. I certainly haven't. The stories and adventures and tragedies of the pass stick around in this country. Several characters remark on the fact that they have always either been at war or are recovering from one and waiting for the next one to begin. As Natalia tells her grandfather's history, there are connections and hints of connections. Everything is tied together: her grandfather, the butcher who brought the tiger's wife to the village, the apothecary, and the tiger itself. Though told separately, they're really the same story--just told from different perspectives and at different points.

Perhaps it's because I've moved around a lot, or I've lives in biggish towns and cities all my life, I've never felt the connection to a place the way that the characters in this book do. This novel shows how the current generation has roots that stretch back over the decades and centuries. Though Obreht never names the country where this novel is set, it feels very real, like this country could really exist. After reading this book, I wonder what it would be like to have roots like that, to live somewhere where my family has lived since anyone can remember. On the one hand, I think it could feel very smothering, as though you have to shoulder the mistakes of your ancestors because everyone can remember them. On the other, I can see how one could feel a strong sense of belonging, to be a part of a rich history and tradition. In this book, I think the role of history is that it provides a slightly more rational way of explaining how we all got where we are.

My reading of all this is that The Tiger's Wife is about the conflict between superstition and reason, and about its symbiosis. It's a very complex tale, and I think it would take a couple more readings to parse it all out.

I want to end this review with a very arresting passage from the end of the book, because I can't express what Obreht has done in this book nearly so well as Obreht did originally. But I think this passage reflects that symbiosis between rational, objective history and irrational, subjective superstition:
There is, however, and always has bee, a place on Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow. There is a cave here, a large flat slab of stone where the sun is always cast. My grandfather's tiger lives there, in a glade where the winter does not go away. He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the colors of birds. He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger's wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore. (337*)
* From the 2011 Random House hardback edition.

12.11.2011

Tiffany Aching Series, by Terry Pratchett

I read these during November, but they're too good to let pass without a post. Terry Pratchett has long been a favorite author of mine. But I think he has achieved something special with the Tiffany Aching series. This quartet of novels, I think, should be required reading for every young teenage girl. The witch-in-training, Tiffany, is a great role model for young girls because of her high levels of common sense and her strong sense of responsibility.

The Wee Free 

Men
The Wee Free Men
The first book in the series, The Wee Free Men, takes place when Tiffany is nine years old. She is the daughter of a long line of shepherds who have lived on the Chalk for centuries. Tiffany is capable, above all else. She's not particularly nice, in that she does not suffer fools gladly and she doesn't care overmuch for her snot factory of a younger brother, but she does care deeply in her own way. Even at nine years old, Tiffany wants to see justice done. When her brother is kidnapped by fairies, she does everything in her power (and even some things that she thought were beyond her) to get him back. It might sound a little grim, but this book is hilariously redeemed from that grimness by the Wee Free Men of the title: six inch high pixies that will steal everything that isn't nailed down. (If it is nailed down, they take the nails, too.) The Wee Free Men help Tiffany in her quest had provide the reader with some typical Pratchett-like comic relief. At the end of the book, Tiffany realizes that she has what it takes to be a witch. In Pratchett's Discworld, that means that you're willing to do what needs to be done, what is right.

A Hat Full of Sky
A Hat Full of Sky
In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany begins her apprenticeship and learns more about the practical side of witchcraft. (About 97% of witchcraft in this world is practical.) After her first magical battle in the first book, Tiffany finds family visits, veterinary medicine, and all the rest dull and--frankly--beneath her. She wonders, if she is capable of magic, why should she be the one to clip lonely old men's toenails? I supposed you could say that, while the first book was about doing what needed to be done because no one else could, this book is about learning how to deal with the responsibility of power. That is, just because you can, it doesn't mean that you should. Tiffany learns that lesson the hard way when she is possessed by a spirit that seems to be composed entirely of pride. Once again, Tiffany is assisted in her fight by the Wee Free Men.

Wintersmith
Wintersmith
In the third book, Wintersmith, Tiffany continues her apprenticeship and learns an important lesson about what happens when you don't stop to consider the consequences of your actions and the dangers of thinking you know everything. It's a small thing, just a dance. But when Tiffany jumps into the middle of an age's old ritual, she suddenly finds herself responsible for some seriously unseasonable weather and the bitterest winter anyone has ever seen. With the help of the Wee Free Men, Tiffany has to put the balance of the seasons back to rights. It's a hard lesson, owning up to your mistakes and then fixing them--especially when the screw up is on this kind of scale. While other adults could have helped get her out of the jams of the first two books, there really isn't anyone else that can help put things right. Even the Wee Free Men can't do much more than give her minor assistance.

I Shall Wear 

Midnight
I Shall Wear Midnight
In the last book, I Shall Wear Midnight, we find that it's not Tiffany who needs to learn a lesson--but her people. This is the darkest book in the quartet. In this book, Pratchett conjures a terrifying villain: the Cunning Man. The Cunning Man used to be a person, before he became the personification of people's fears of witches. As the Cunning Man begins to manifest once more, Tiffany is being worked to the bone, doing all the unpleasant tasks of taking care of people that other people just don't want to do. And she does it all without so much as a thank you. More than that, some people actually start to resent her. They feel that she bosses them around. She makes them uncomfortable. She does have the help of the Wee Free Men and of the more senior witches in the land, but once again, there are some things that Tiffany has to do herself. She is only one who can defeat the Cunning Man. It is rather satisfying how things start to fall apart when Tiffany can't fulfill her self-appointed duties and people learn how much they need her. Even though it's a dark book, it has a delightfully warm ending.

I really wish that these books had been around when I was younger. Tiffany is a such a strong person, that I think she inspires strength in others. With a few exceptions, like Katniss Everdeen, there are few other female role models in young adult fiction that I think are truly great. If you know a young girl in need of something to read, recommend these.

The Road to Bedlam, by Mike Shevdon

The Road to 

Bedlam
The Road to Bedlam
Mike Shevdon's The Road to Bedlam picks up some nine months after the first book. Niall is learning to be a warder while his girlfriend gestates their first child. This sequel is just as interesting and enjoyable to read as the first book in the series. It builds on what the first book started, giving more details into an alternate past where the British government made a pact with their more outre inhabitants.

Shortly after the introduction catches us up on Niall's life to date, it divides into a couple of different plots. First, Niall's daughter by his first wife is involved in an accident at school that later--apparently--takes her life. But Niall soon learns that she has been abducted by people who know how to block his magic. Second, enemy Feyre arrive for "peace talks" and proceed to chase Niall's girlfriend, Blackbird, across London and Shropshire. Third, Niall is sent to investigate weird happenings in small fishing town. It's all rather a lot to keep track of, but it makes for a thrilling read.

After Blackbird is saved from her pursuer and the mystery in the fishing town are wrapped up, there is a fantastic climax at Porton Down. Even if the rest of the book weren't that great, this ending would more than make up for it. Not only are the fight scenes gripping to read through, but Shevdon also reveals more of his secret history. As in the last book, there are references to an eight hundred year old agreement between the British government and the Feyre. In this book, we learn that maybe, just maybe, that agreement is starting to crack. The humans might be looking for a way out of their deal. If nothing else, this revelation will bring me back for the next book.

The Left of God, by Paul Hoffman

The Left Hand of 

God
The Left Hand of God
Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God starts out promisingly. The first third of the book is really quite interesting. I suppose I kept reading in the hopes that this book would live up to its beginning. Hoffman introduces us to his protagonist (who is surprisingly antagonistic) in a very harsh monastery that is training young boys into a fanatical army. This introduction is the most original part of the book. The monks--Redeemers, they call themselves--are in a centuries long war with people they only refer to as Antagonists or heretics. Our protagonist, Cale, escapes one night with his friends after murdering one of the Redeemers in the middle of an unexplained and macabre vivisection.

 After that escape, however, the novel starts to wander. Moreover, it also starts to incorporate names that jar you right out of the narrative if you know anything about European history and geography. I read a comment on the Amazon page for this book, and one of those commenters had it exactly right. It's like Hoffman put a textbook in a blender and used that to name things in his book. There are (and I am not making this up): Norwegians and Spanish; cities and places named Memphis, York, and Stamford Bridge; and characters with titles like Gauleiter and gangs named after the Lollards. Every time the novel seemed to settle down, one of these names would get dropped in like a girder on train tracks. Those names, I'll admit, were part of the reason I kept reading. They were so startling, that I thought there must be a reason Hoffman was using them. As far as the first book in this series goes, there is none.

Cale and his comrades pretty much land on their feet in Memphis after their capture. Cale manages to worm his way into a position of power after saving a bigwig's daughter from the Redeemers. There isn't much of an overarching plot or motive to connect the events of the second two thirds of the book. I kept waiting for one, but all I got were hints. It's clear that more will be revealed in later books. But given the fact that Hoffman can't even be bothered to come up with original names of things, I'm not sure I will bother.

So, if nothing else, I hope this review keeps you from wasting your time.

12.04.2011

The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman
The Snowman
After spending a lot of November reading fantasies, I decided to change things up by reading a mystery recommended to me by my mum. I'm really glad I did. If it wasn't a Sunday, I would have gone straight to the library after finishing it to pick up the rest of the books in the series. Jo Nesbø's The Snowman is not the first novel to feature Inspector Harry Hole, but it wasn't hard for me to get up to speed.  

The Snowman is a terrifically tense Scandinavian mystery set in Oslo. (Because I have family from Norway, it was fun to spot familiar names.) At first, it seems like just another serial killer novel. Inspector Harry Hole, one of the few zen detectives* I've come across, is tasked with investigating what appear to be puzzling missing persons cases. But someone is killing these women and has been for a long time (although only a few bodies are found). There is, of course, pressure from the top brass and from the press to solve the case once it becomes clear that there is a serial murderer running around. Hole also has to deal with his own demon; he is a recovering alcoholic who does not attend meetings. He's relying on sheer willpower to resist temptation.

 Nesbø has a terrific way of revealing clues and details in such a way that you start to see what's going on well before the rest of the police figure it out--but you won't figure out who did it until the very end. Nesbø gives us no less then two spectacular twists that lead us all down the wrong path until he decides to reveal the real killer. The whole plot grows up organically around you and feels utterly real. Not only do we get a twisty, turning mystery plot, but Nesbø has a knack for pacing that kept me reading for hours. I could not put it down for the entire last third. I had to see what happened next!

Harry Hole is another part of what makes this book work. He seems like such a real person, with realistic flaws and hopes. He's just as morose as you'd expect from a Scandinavian detective, but he doesn't make you depressed as you ride around on his shoulder as the plot unfolds. He's got a very interesting mind. As I said before, he's a zen detectives. So it seems like he does very little to advance the investigation. In fact, he explicitly refuses to use the normal methods that his superior expects. According to Hole, too many details get in the way of the case. He knows that the killer is too smart to be caught by little mistakes. Every clue they do find is likely to be planted. Hole listens to his instincts, lets details percolate at the back of his head until they make sense. It makes for a very interesting and unusual reading experience.

I am so going to the library tomorrow.

 * Zen detectives are investigators that don't rely so much on forensics to solve the case. Instead, they tend let events develop around them and intuit their way towards the criminal. They are almost the complete opposite of ratiocinators like Sherlock Holmes.

Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon

Sixty-One Nails
Sixty-One Nails
Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails is billed as a Neverwhere for this generation. While I can't entirely agree with that reviewer's statement (we are talking about Neil Gaiman and who can match him?), I have to say that this is a very engrossing read. I need to go back to the library and get the next book in the series.

Niall Petersen works in the City of London. There's nothing out of the ordinary in his life; he's very unremarkable--just another divorce with ex-wife issues. One morning on the way to work, he suffers a heart attack and dies on the Underground. He is revived by a woman who insists that he's a doctor and that he doesn't need an ambulance. This is just the first bit of weirdness in a long series of weird events in Niall's life. In fact, the heart attack is the last normal thing that happens to him.

 After dying, Niall finds out that he's the latest entrant into a long-standing shadow war between feyre courts. It takes him a long time to be convinced of this, but when something inhuman tries to kill him again that very night, Niall starts to believe. The woman who revived him is his reluctant guide in this new world. Like Neverwhere, Sixty-One Nails is set mostly in the parts of London that most people don't pay attention to. It also incorporates odd bits of English history (like quit rents) and builds them into the plot. I love books that teach me trivia.

We get to explore this new world and its complicated rules and magic along with Niall. We end up racing all over London and Shropshire as Niall (now called Rabbit) and his mentor Blackbird try to save humanity from very horrible deaths. Even though there is some fairly incredible acts of magic in this book, Shevdon has done a remarkable job of making it all believable and tense. There are a couple of scenes towards the end where you really believe that Niall and Blackbird could lose to the  feyre nightmares.

I really started to enjoy this book after I stopped comparing it to Neverwhere. As I said, how can anyone else live up to that level of imagination? If you do pick up this book, ignore the blurbs on the back.

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

I took a break from posting to participate in NaNoWriMo and now it's been so long, I'm not quite sure how to start these.

The Alloy of Law
The Alloy of Law
The Mistborn trilogy was the best piece of fantasy literature I've read in a long time. It was original, with fantastic characters and a terrific plot. When it ended, I was sad that it was over. But when I heard that there would be a new book set in the same world, I got excited to see what happened after the end of the trilogy. The Alloy of Law takes place about 300 years after the end of the last Mistborn book. Without the Lord Ruler and the force of Ruin suppressing innovation and life, progress has roared ahead. Just a couple of centuries later, the world is in the midst of a thriving industrial revolution. While the first three books were solidly fantasy stories, The Alloy of Law has elements of the Western and detective genres.

The book opens at the final stages of a man hunt. Wax Ladrian, the law in those there parts, is tracking down a gruesome serial killer. Things go horribly wrong, and Wax chooses to return to the capital city to help restore his family's fortunes. Once there, Wax feels uncomfortable living with all the luxury his apparently spendthrift uncle left behind since he has spend the twenty years of his life bring order to the frontier. When a series of mysterious train robberies and kidnappings captures his attention, Wax has a very hard time not investigating them.

 This novel really takes off when Wax gives in and starts to investigate after a very spectacular attempt on his life. After that, it's a wild ride full of shoot outs, fights to the death, and dastardly deeds. It's not like the original series at all, thought it shares the same world. And I really appreciate that. This is one of the things I really like about Sanderson, that he's always trying something new and original. The book ends with a strong hint of another book featuring Wax, so I look forward to what he comes up with next for this character.

(I would write more, but it's been a couple of weeks since I read the book.)

10.23.2011

The Affair, by Lee Child

The Affair
The Affair
It's weird how I sometimes end up reading books that you would think are completely different from each other, but end up being linked thematically. If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would say that Lee Child's The Affair is about justice. (The last book I read, Snuff by Terry Pratchett, also covered justice.) While this book is the 16th in the Jack Reacher series, it takes place chronologically before the first book in the series (Killing Floor). Interestingly, we get to meet Reacher before he's become the wandering knight errant of the later books. In this book, he's even more violent than usual. Where the main character of Snuff, Sam Vimes, has created very rigid rules for himself about what he will and will not do in serving the law, Reacher (at least in this book) has few qualms about serving his brand of justice.

The novel begins with Reacher being sent to a remote corner of Mississippi to not so much solve a murder, but to keep the situation under control to protect the Army. All we know at this point is that woman was found murdered near a base that house two companies of Rangers. Once he gets down there, Reacher finds out that not only is the local sheriff's office unequipped to solve murders but the sheriff herself doesn't seem all that motivated to investigate. It also becomes readily apparent that the first murder was really the third in a series. Unfortunately for Reacher, all the evidence points to a Ranger and not just any Ranger--a Senator's son.

After 16 novels, it seems to me that Reacher doesn't solve crimes based on the evidence so much as with his fearsome intellect and knowledge of human behavior. Sure, he follows the evidence because he's a good investigator. But he links the evidence with the events based on how he knows that people will react. Though Reacher is a mostly solitary character, he's been keenly observing people all his life. Granted, he seems to have observed people so that he knows how to fight people, but it works with criminal investigation just as well.

What struck me about this book was how willing Reacher was to step into the roles not only of cop, but also judge and executioner, too, even though he was still operating as a military policeman here. I know that MPs have more leeway than civilian cops, but surely there are some limits. I was very shocked at some of Reacher's actions in this book. But I think I was even more shocked that other characters let him get away with it.

After I finished the book, I ended up meditating on the question of what should someone do when criminals are, for whatever reason, beyond the reach of ordinary justice? First, no one should be untouchable. You break a law, you deserve to pay the penalty for it. But in our world, there are some people who the law just can't seem to touch: the rich, the connected, the rich and connected. So, if you can serve justice, should you? Religion aside, is there a higher set of ethics that we should adhere to? Reacher certainly seems to think so. He also seems curiously unafflicted with guilt about his actions, too--which is something else to ponder.  

The Affair is a surprisingly deep book. You go in expecting another adventure with Reacher, some fistfights, a little romance, and an exit into another sunset. I think that Child is growing as an author. On top of the ethical questions, Child also give you several deft and effective plot twists that keep the tension up until the end the of the book. This is one of the best books in the series.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Reading Terry Pratchett's books is a bitter sweet experience now. I love the stories. The setting is so rich, and the tone is uproariously funny and smart. But I know now that every book that comes out is one book closer to the end of the series. Sure, the stories are lively enough that you can easily imagine the characters carrying on--but I won't get to read about them once Pratchett dies. No one can write the way he does.

Snuff
Snuff

Snuff is the 39th Discworld novel (and I hope like hell there are a more than a few left) and features the terrific Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch. Vimes is a copper; he quite literally lives for his job. But in Snuff, Vimes is forced to go on holiday. Vimes being Vimes, however, he sniffs out murder and smuggling and injustice. And Vimes being Vimes, he doesn't let something like jurisdiction stop him from hunting down the criminals.

Pratchett always satirizes something from the real world in his books, and it was fun to see the "Jane Austen" cameo. But Pratchett really goes after racism in this book. He's tackled the idea before, but this book has a different angle on the issue. What if there were a group of people who everyone knew was bad, filthy, stupid, and incapable of bettering themselves? In Snuff, that would be the goblins. They're used to being killed or kidnapped, but they long for justice, for a chance to be treated like the intelligent beings they are. It's a little surprising that in a world as diverse as the Discworld, there is still anti-any sentient being feelings floating around. But the thing you learn is that people are people everywhere you go and it takes a lot of time for old prejudices to die.

Once I heard about Pratchett's diagnosis, it was hard to me to not look for its effects in his work. In this book, I thought I maybe detected fewer jokes, maybe fewer cultural references. But the plot is intricate, logical, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch play out--especially the heart-stopping scene on the river. And this book still has enough funny to keep me chuckling and snorting from beginning to end.

10.09.2011

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere
Neverwhere
One of the things I love about Neil Gaiman's work is that you can read them as modern day fairy tales. They have something of the Grimm brothers about them. Things aren't quite real, which magic and mysterious creatures. The world of the book is governed by unexplained rules, and the characters are playing for high stakes. And there's a better than average chance more than one character will die. It continually amazes me how Gaiman can bring elements of folklore and history to play in a modern setting. In Neverwhere, the protagonists are on a quest to avenge a family and save London Below, the dark flipside of the everyday London. Along the way, they have to fight the Beast of London, face the Black Friar's ordeals and the earl of Earl's Court. There are characters like Old Bailey and the marquis de Carabas. I love books where I spend almost as much time on Wikipedia looking things up as I do reading the book.

The book begins with Richard Mayhew, an ordinary bloke with a fiancee who is trying to mold him into a titan of industry. Richard just muddles along with his life until a bleeding girl drops into his path one day. Since he possesses some hidden heroic qualities, Richard takes her home and patches her up. His assistance, however, causes him to drop out of his ordinary life and become a part of London Below. Made up of forgotten things and people and old time, London Below is much more interesting than its counterpart and a lot more dangerous. The girl he helped, Door, turns out to be the center of a big conspiracy. Her family has been killed and the assassins are after her now. The only people she can trust are Richard (who is clueless about London Below) and the so-called marquis de Carabas (who seems even more dodgy than the rest of the underside's denizens).

 What really makes this book for me, other than the bits of folklore and history, are the villains: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. They're both terrifyingly violent and they seem to be around every corner. Mr. Croup is the voice of the pair, and his archaic and erudite way of speaking make him even more frightening. Mr. Vandemar, the muscle, is a barely controlled psychopath who hurts anything that he can in the most painful way possible. Even though they're a pretty fantastical pair, they make the danger Richard and Door and their group face seem more real.

I can't say much more about this book without giving away the conspiracy. Like The Night Circus (by Erin Morgenstern), the setting really makes this book. But unlike that book, the characters stand up to the setting. They grow and change and we really get to learn who these characters are. The transformation in Richard is particularly spectacular. He grows from a regular Joe into a fully fledged hero.  

Neverwhere is one of the reasons I wish Gaiman publishes more novels. I love this book and American Gods and Good Omens and the rest. He's truly original.

The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes

The Damned 

Busters I love comic novels that involve religion. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens and Christopher Moore's Lamb are permanently in the my top ten favorite novels list. So I really enjoyed The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes. It takes the Faust premise and twists it into a 400 page running gag about heaven, hell, free will, demonic deals, and superheros. I'm really looking forward to the next installments in the series.

 The novel opens with a demon trying to convince young Chesney Anstruther to sign a contract and Chesney trying to convince the demon that he summoned it purely by accident. The dispute escalates to the point where Chesney ends up in negotiations with the devil and a representative of heaven with the help of a TV preacher. The upshot of it all is that Chesney gets to moonlight as a superhero for two hours out of twenty four without having to pay the eternal price. The whole thing had me snorting with mirth.

 I'll admit that the middle of the book doesn't quite match up to the fantastic beginning and thrilling ending, but it's still a lot of fun reading Chesney's misadventures trying to be a superhero. (He gets maced by a woman he attempts to save from muggers.) Keeping up the level of hilarity is Chesney's demonic sidekick, Xaphan, who talks like people did when he was last topside and sounds like a stereotypical gangster from the 1920s. He completely steals the show. Things do drag a bit in the middle while Hughes moves characters into position for the surprisingly thrilling ending.

This was a very, very fun read. I hope the next installments come out soon.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus
The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is one of the most beautiful books I've read. More than anything else, I was struck by the elegance of the prose and the setting. While the characters are a bit sketchy, you sink into the atmosphere of the book like a warm bath. If nothing else, I would recommend the book for the sheer wonder of it.

While the book centers on the actions of Celia and Marco, the plot is really put into motion by a pair of cold-blooded magicians: Hector and Alexander. Hector pushes at the boundaries of magic and believes that innate ability is the key to greatness. Alexander believes that it can be taught. And for centuries, they have been pitting their students against each other to fight it out to the death. Celia and Marco are the latest combatants, and their arena is the Cirque des Rêves. But in spite of the efforts of their teachers, Celia and Marco fall in love and start trying to find a way around the parameters of the contest. Further complicating matters is the Circus itself. The Circus is like the best parts of every circus put together, with all the bad parts--the animal cruelty, the stink, etc.--taken out. Instead, each visit to the circus is like stepping safely into a fairy tale. There's the Ice Garden, the illusions that are really real, the Cloud Maze, the acrobats that work without nets, the Wishing Tree. After a while, the Circus develops a corps of followers that travel everywhere the circus goes. The competition between Celia and Marco is what drives the magic of the circus. For every one of Celia's creations, Marco creates something new. The circus is their love letter to each other, and it's a lot of fun to watch it all play out and see what they will come up with next.

Celia and Marco's story skips forward through time, from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Along side it, we get Bailey and Poppet's story. Poppet and her twin were born on the circus's opening night. Bailey is a local kid who snuck into the circus on a dare and fell in love with it, and with Poppet. It's hard to see how this tread will tie into the main one, but Morgenstern wraps them together into a fairly spectacular and very satisfying ending. The reader also gets pulled in, with short second-person vignettes that highlight different attractions. Normally, second-person bugs the hell out of me, but worked for this book.

The setting really is the best thing about this book. But I have to agree with Stacey d'Erasmo's review in the New York Times about the characters. It's as though Morgenstern has spent so much creative capital on the setting that there wasn't much left for character motivations or even personalities. Morgenstern tells you the characters are in love with each other, but doesn't show why they're in love with each other. The circus really is the best part of the book and by the end, I was more worried about its future than the future of the characters. Granted, this is a debut novel. It shows so much promise that I'm very interested to see what Morgenstern comes up with next.

9.29.2011

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

The Magician 

King
The Magician King
It's rare that a sequel is better than the first book in the series, but I have to say that Lev Grossman's The Magician King is better than The Magicians. The story seems to have settled into its setting. We know who the characters are, so we don't have to waste time going over the same ground. Instead, the plot marches solidly on towards an unpredictable but fantastic conclusion. If this book means that Grossman is just going to get better and better with these books, I don't know if I can handle another book without completely geeking out and forcing my friends and family to read them all.

We meet our heroes and heroines--the kings and queens of Fillory and former students of Brakebills in New York--killing time. Their kingdom pretty much runs itself, and the lack of anything worthwhile is starting to wear on Quentin in particular. He decides to get away from the capitol on an errand, volunteering one of his co-rulers to go with. That errand, a trip to an outlying part of the kingdom, turns out to be the start of a quest--though Quentin doesn't realize it. Grossman puts a lot of things into motion in this book. I didn't even realize that some of the unresolved questions from the first book--such as where one of the characters learned her magic, what the Neitherlands really are, etc.--come back to play unexpectedly. When you've read as much as I have, you learn to love books that can surprise you.

The quest takes Queutin beyond the borders of his kingdom and back to Earth. After his desperate attempts to return to Fillory finally succeed, we all find ourselves in the end stages of the quest. The pace changes from leisurely to so tense that I ended up reading late into the night to finish it off and see how it all turned out. I hesitate to say anymore, because everything ends up so neatly and beautifully. But I will say that it ends with a segue into a possible new chapter for the series. Grossman opened a new door there, literally, that I really want to go through.

By the end, I realized that this book was about three different things. First, it is a quest. Quentin and his companions have to save their adopted nation and magic. More importantly, this book is about what it really means to be a hero, to make sacrifices. Quentin sacrifices more than he thought he was capable--more than I thought he was capable of, considering what a whiner he's been in the past. But above all, I think this book is about taking responsibility and paying the price for your mistakes. It's almost like there's a karmic balance to be met. Instead of characters being able to carry on trying to redeem themselves, they have to make sacrifices to make up for them. It's an interesting point to ponder. The sacrifices these characters make are far from easy ones. Crowns are lost. Doors are permanently barred. But once they've paid their karmic price, it's like the slate is wiped clean. On top of being a wonderfully imaginative fantasy and being terrifically written, it's also a great philosophical read.

9.18.2011

Pirate King, by Laurie R. King

Pirate King
Pirate King
Sometimes it's fun to read a lark of a book. Laurie R. King's Pirate King fit the bill after the slog I had with Robert McCammon's Swan Song. Pirate King is the 11th book in the Holmes and Russel series, but it's somewhat outside of the main story. The best way I can describe it is to say it's a side jaunt. This is a fun book. Wildly unbelievable, but fun.

We open with Mary Russell reluctantly agreeing to work for and spy on Fflytte Films, a British Film company that is haunted by flops and criminal activity. Russell takes the case more to avoid her brother-in-law's visit more than anything else and soon finds herself up to her eyeballs in spoiled actresses, megalomaniacal directors, translators with multiple personalities, and latter day pirates. As one of the few people with common sense in the film company, Russell soon becomes essential.

There's a lot going on with the Ffytte company, but Russell doesn't find much evidence of crime until the pirates show up. The main crime here is a bit of a stretch, I'll admit. Pirated on a brigantine in 1924? Really? But they play their part to the hilt--'scuze the pun. Once the action starts to roll, Russell finds herself as one of the few people who knows what's really going on. It's up to her to save the lives of the oblivious actors and crew from the pirates.

By the end of the book, there are a lot of coincidences that tie up the last wild strands of plots (in both senses of the word). I won't say any more on that score so that I won't ruin the ending. But as I said, this book is a jaunt. It's meant to be wild and fun more than anything else. And who doesn't like spending time at sea with pirates? (That is, as long as you do it in such a way that you don't have to smell them.) To add to the swashbuckling, King peppers the narrative with references to Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

This book is really for series fans, but it's a hoot to read.

Swan Song, by Robert McCammon

I didn't realize when I read it, but Stephen King's The Stand has colored my reading of every man-made apocalypse I've read since. When I read The Stand for the first time, it freaked me out so much that I could only read it in 60 page bursts or so before I had to go read something else for a while. It made such an impact on me that I can't help but compare similar books to it and see if they can measure up. On top of this, it doesn't help that Robert McCammon's Swan Song has some very strong similarities to The Stand. Sure, it's different enough that plagiarism is not a concern, but I couldn't help but think as I read it: Hey, I've seen this sort of thing before.

Swan Song
Swan Song
The beginning of Swan Song is, frankly, terrifying and utterly believable. Written in 1987, it drops you into the middle of escalating tensions between the American government and the Soviets. For me, this was the best part of the book. It was tense and cynical, like Dr. Strangelove without the humor or absurdity. In this opening, we see a president getting backed into a corner by his cabinet. The Soviets have been posturing, which means that--according to that cabinet--we need to grandstand right back. We can't appear weak. The Soviets only respect strength, etc. etc. The president ends up pushing the button and nuclear war breaks out. The United States is devastated, in the fullest sense of the word. It's remarkable that anyone survived at all. Even if the explosion and radiation didn't get you, the subsequent starvation should have.

At the same time McCammon sets the stage, he also starts dropping in hints of the supernatural. He turns it into a slow show down between good and evil. On the evil side, is a creature that the other characters liken to the Devil card in Tarot. All it seems to want is destruction, to stamp out hope. It possesses other characters in order to destroy a girl named Swan--who has a gift for making things grow in impossible conditions. Also on the evil side is a whacked out Vietnam vet and his sidekick, a twisted boy with a penchant for torture. The vet and the kid are out to conquer what's left of the population Mad Max style. On the good side are Swan and her protectors who, for the most part, don't have any plan except to survive as long as possible. For most of the book, the protagonists and antagonists circle each other over the wastes of the United States. Most of the action in this book is crammed into the first and last hundred pages or so. The middle is slow, I have to say.

McCammon starts to get heavy handed with his symbolism later in the book with the Job's Mask phenomenon. The people who get this condition are all out of the ordinary in some way. When their mask falls away, their "real face" is revealed. The beautiful people are Good; the ugly people Evil. Once this starts to happen, McCammon starts to build towards his climax where the Devil (for lack of a better name) wants to unleash one last super weapon. The ending is better than the deus ex machina ending of The Stand, I'll give McCammon that. Human foibles started the whole mess and humans, on their own, get out of it.

By the end of the book though, I was just glad that I was out of pages. It was an exhausting read. I don't know If I'd recommend it to anyone except hardcore apocalypse readers, in spite of the awards it won. I'll stick with The Stand.

9.01.2011

Fated, by S.G. Browne

Fated
Fated
S.G. Browne's Fated is a fun read, especially if you have a warped sense of humor. Like I do. Fated is a demented book, but I mean that in a good way. Everything is fair game in this book, even god. (Perhaps especially god, who is known as Jerry in this book.) I had a very good time reading this book. I'd recommend it to all my friends with warped senses of humor.

Our narrator is Fate, who is in a bit of a rut after more than 250,000 years of assigning life paths to billions of humans. He's forbidden to interfere and with the rise of consumerism and the other attendant evils of modern life, his humans are consistently screwing up their lives. Everyone's miserable and it's making Fate depressed. The only bright spot on the horizon is a very special, funny, and lovely woman who Fate keeps bumping into. But Sara is on the path of Destiny (who is a bit of a bitch, actually) and Fate supposed to stay away from her. But you just can't help who you fall in love with.

As Fate falls more deeply in love with Sara, he starts to cheer up. He also starts to bend the rules about interfering, nudging his humans towards better lives. As I read, I thought this would be a fairly run of the mill funny book. But then the plot starts to twist and the book just gets better. I loved how this book twisted and turned its way to a wonderfully bittersweet ending. I won't ruin it for anyone else, in spite of what the scientists say.

But what I loved about this book was its cast of intangibles and emotions and deadly sins and virtues. Karma is an absolute hoot; he stole every scene he was in.
I've seen this reaction before, back during the Classical Age, after the exodus and before the birth of the Roman Empore, when the vast majority of humans were hungry for messiahs and spiritual leaders. Karma would sit down on a hill or under a tree and just start taking and the people would flock to him, asking him to lean them out of whatever persecution or injustice they suffered. When he got them all good and worked up, right where he wanted them, he'd spontaneously combust and they'd run away screaming.

Afterward, we'd have a good laugh about it over some wine and unleavened bread. (188)*
And how can you not love a book where Death is better known as Dennis (and rigor mortis creeps him out) and god is Jerry? There are heaps on historical jokes. Fate had one night stands with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. And:
Faith has been replaced more than once over the millennia, Fidelity was transferred to a desk job in the wake of the free-love debacle, Reason got canned after the Salem Witch Trials, and Ego lost his job after the Beatles broke up. (20)
You'd think a book about fate would be terribly depressing, but this book was an absolute joy to read. I actually wish it was a little longer so that I could hang out with the cast a little bit longer. And then there's the style. This book is concise and punchy, never wearing out jokes and scenes by making them drag on too long. Fate is a delightfully irreverent narrator:
The thing about Truth is that he's a kleptomanic...The thing about Wisdom is that he has an inferiority complex. (206)
I hope Browne has more books like this one inside. I'm very much looking forward to whatever he comes up with next.

* All quotes from the 2010 trade paperback edition.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
I haven't read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird since I was a teenager. All that I remembered about the book was the court case, Boo Radley, and the immortal line about it being a sin to kill a mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is a richer book than I thought it was. I finished it on Monday and scenes and ideas are still sparking for me. I've since read that the literature on this book is sparse, relatively speaking. But there's so many ideas and characters to explore.

I won't waste time on a summary of this book. If you haven't read it, you should. So, I want to jump right into the ideas that are still roaming around inside my noggin. First, feminism of all things. Scout Finch has a lot of models of womanhood around her. There's the strident and militantly proper Aunt Alexandra. There's the quirky neighbor Maudie. And there's the elegant and strong Calpurnia, the Finch family's housekeeper. Throughout the book, Alexandra and Calpurnia try to mold Scout. Maudie doesn't do much other than threaten Scout when the girl is about to cause some kind of property damage. As I read the book, I saw Scout grow and not necessarily for the better. At the beginning, Scout is an unapologetic tomboy. She rebels against dresses and the strict manners others try to push on her. I love early Scout. She's the kind of kid I would have been if I'd had more guts. By the end of the book, Scout has learned--painfully and dragging her heels every step of the way--to hold her piece, to present herself as the kind of girl her Aunt and Calpurnia want her to be. I found the transformation very melancholy. As I finished the book, I wondered what Scout would have been like as an adult. Would she continue to kowtow? Or would she hold on to her spark until she could be herself?

I can't write about To Kill a Mockingbird and not talk about racism. But I forgot how much classism plays a part in this book. At several times in the book, different characters lay out the hierarchy of Maycomb. For everyone except the African Americans in the community, there's someone to look down on. Only the outsiders don't know how the system worked. Everyone in the community has stereotypes for each other because the families have all been around for over a hundred years. A lot of behavior is dismissed as, "Well, they don't know any better" or "That's just how they are." The classism and racism are deeply ingrained. Only a few characters seem to rise above it. When the jury takes hours to come back with a verdict for Tom Robinson, you feel a little bit of hope that it's not a forgone conclusion--at least until Lee smacks you upside the head with the inevitable. It's clear by the end of the book that it's going to take a long time for Maycomb to change their attitudes, if they ever manage to change them.

As a corrollary to this idea, the community does seem to be able to change those attitudes on an individual level. You can change a person's mind, given the right methods and motivation. It's the community as a whole that has a hard time changing. Lee shows us this in the scene where the mob confronts Atticus at the jail where Robinson is held. When Scout singles out Mr. Cunningham, the entire scene changes. It's a brilliant piece of writing.

Moving on. The trial of Tom Robinson is a gut-wrenching miscarriage of justice. With a decent jury, the case would have been tossed out of court and the Ewell family would have faced some investigation. In spite of the best efforts of the judge and Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson was facing the ingrained racism and classism of Maycomb. The Ewells were higher in the hierarchy. The community had terrible ideas about African American men. The jury failed to see through the transparent lies of the Ewells. It's so painful to read. I wanted to climb inside the book and shake every member of the jury until their teeth rattled. How could they not see the truth when Atticus put it right there in front of them?

As much as I love Scout, what really makes this book for me is Atticus. He's the embodiment of a quiet hero. He does the right thing no matter how hard it is because it is the right thing. Atticus knew he wouldn't be able to hold his head up if he failed to do his duty by Tom. Facing down the scorn and hatred of his community is harder than going off and fighting an enemy. It must have broken Atticus's hear to see the depths that his neighbors could sink to. And yet, the experience doesn't break him, even though he lost. He's still the same steady good man as he was before. That's strength. As a Taoist or Buddhist would put it, Atticus can bend without breaking. He's a character type that sadly doesn't appear much in fiction. Both in real life and fiction, we could use more people like Atticus.

The List, 2010-2011

Here are the books I've read in the last twelvemonth and thus ends another book year:
  1. Roma, by Steven Saylor
  2. Imperium, by Robert Harris
  3. Blameless, by Gail Carriger
  4. Conspirata, by Robert Harris
  5. In the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  6. Tilting the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  7. Upsetting the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  8. Striking the Balance, by Harry Turtledove
  9. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink
  10. Devil's Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory
  11. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
  12. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie
  13. On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
  14. A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb
  15. Carrie, by Stephen King
  16. Android Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
  17. Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
  18. Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane
  19. Worth Dying For, by Lee Child
  20. Walking Dead, volumes 1-6, by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  21. Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
  22. High King of Montival, by S.M. Stirling
  23. Kindred, by Octavia Butler
  24. Kill the Dead, by Richard Kadrey
  25. Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
  26. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  27. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  28. Bone Rattler, by Eliot Pattison
  29. The Stranger, by Albert Camus
  30. Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  31. The Half-Made Word, by Felix Gilman
  32. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  33. Thicker Than Water, by Mike Carey
  34. Vicious Grace, by M.L.N. Hanover
  35. Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder
  36. Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson
  37. Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar
  38. World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler
  39. Kraken, by China Mieville
  40. Naked Heat, by Richard Castle
  41. Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain
  42. All Clear, by Connie Willis
  43. Pale Demon, by Kim Harrison
  44. A Madness of Angels, by Kim Griffin
  45. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
  46. The Lonely Polygamist, by Barry Udall
  47. Malinche, by Laura Esquivel
  48. The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie
  49. The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
  50. One of Our Thursdays is Missing, by Jasper Fforde
  51. Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra
  52. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
  53. Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
  54. The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde
  55. Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland
  56. Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde
  57. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte
  58. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
  59. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
  60. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  61. Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris
  62. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
  63. Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne
  64. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
  65. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder
  66. The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
  67. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
  68. Preacher, by Garth Ennis, et al.
  69. The Unincorporated Man, by Dani and Eytan Kollin
  70. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
  71. Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
  72. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
  73. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
  74. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
  75. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
  76. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
  77. Smokin' Seventeen, by Janet Evanovich
  78. The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson
  79. The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson
  80. Embassytown, by China Mièville
  81. The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin
  82. Heartless, by Gail Carriger
  83. Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
  84. A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness
  85. Flashback, by Dan Simmons
  86. Life, On the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
  87. Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell
  88. Kitty’s Big Trouble, by Carrie Vaughn
  89. Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest
  90. Portrait of a Spy, by Daniel Silva
  91. Naamah’s Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey
  92. The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell
  93. Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian, by Scott Douglas
  94. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes
  95. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
  96. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
  97. The Complaints, by Ian Rankin
  98. These is My Words, by Nancy Turner
  99. Deus ex Machina, by Andrew Foster Altshul
  100. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  101. Fated, by S.G. Browne
Not as many as last year, but I did teach a graduate course this past summer. Oh well, something to shoot for next year.

8.28.2011

Deus ex Machina, by Andrew Foster Altshul

Deus ex Machina
Deus ex Machina
Andrew Foster Altshul's Deus ex Machina is a hallucination of a novel that blends reality TV and Heart of Darkness into an unsettling social commentary. The novel shifts back and forth between timelines and settings without warning, and the only anchor is the unnamed producer. The novel shifts between a Survivor-like show currently filming somewhere in Indonesia and the unnamed producer trying to keep the show going while pleasing his new and much young boss. The producer wants to make a show about truth--but doesn't know how to do that or even what truth would be in this setting. But everyone around him in the control booth is out to make the most scandalous and shocking season they can. The players just want to win and are more than willing to show how low they can sink.

The show within the book, The Deserted, reads like a more extreme version of Survivor. One of the players actually dies at one point, and two others get close to it. The point of the show, according to the producer, is non-interference. The producer wants the players to have free will, though the players are required to participate in challenges and follow the rules of the game. They're removed if they don't. The show, like they all seem to, has become formulaic. The producer notices that they all fall into the same roles. There's always a Hero, a Schemer, a Whiner, etc. Only the first seasons were original and the producer is under pressure to make the show even more shocking to win back some viewers. Some of his team have already jumped ship and are following orders directly from the new boss. On top of all this pressure, the producer is haunted by a horrific season in Benin and his wife's awful death. It's little wonder that the producer starts to slid into paranoia and insanity.

While the plot is interesting and the characters are horrifyingly interesting to watch, the thing to pay attention to, I think, is the social critique. At several points, the producer muses on the extreme sorts of reality shows that The Deserted is competing with. Later in the book, he learns about the hyperbolic criticism from the audience. In these moments, Altschul approaches delightfully uncomfortable satire, highlighting the disconnect between the life-threatening risks the players have to take and the fickle attention of the audience. To the audience, it's just TV. It can't be real. We trust the lawyers and underwriters to keep things from getting too dangerous. The audience knows that the show is script to some extent, so they want drama. In spite of the pressure and the elaborate sets they've built and challenges they've designed, wants the show to be real. It's a mundane goal. Or it would be if the producer wasn't competing with with the ghastly storylines his team wants to put in place.

Deus ex Machina is a hard book to get a grip on, mostly because there are so many things that a reader could take away from it. There's the satire. There's the vaguely theological metaphor of the producer as god and everyone getting upset about the free will experiment. There's the social commentary on the reality TV phenomenon. It's amazing what Altschul can do in a little over 200 pages.

8.24.2011

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin

The Complaints
The Complaints
I think I'm out of practice when it comes to reading mysteries. At  times, the conspiracy at the center of Ian Rankin's The Complaints was so complicated that I felt like I needed a diagram to keep track of everyone's motives and plots. It seems as though everyone in Scotland has an ulterior motive. By the end, I suspected that it was really several plots colliding...but you can be the judge of that.

At the beginning of The Complaints, we meet Malcolm Fox, who is part of the squad that polices the rest of the police. He's putting the finishing touches on a case against a cop who likes the bend the rules when he gets the word that one of his target's comrades might be into child pornography. And just when it seems that Fox has enough on his plate, he learns that his sister's abusive boyfriend has been murdered. And, surprise surprise, he's a suspect. From there, things get--if you can believe it--even more complicated. It's fascinating to see it all come together.

My favorite part of the book was Fox himself. Rankin does a great job of showing him grow, although I can't say Fox is the better for his experiences. At first, he was very much by the book. But by the end, he's cutting the same kind of corners as the cops he normally investigates. It's an interesting transformation to watch.

I don't have much to say about The Complaints. It's a solid mystery and I did enjoy killing some time reading it. I'd recommend it to mystery readers who like to read books where they can't work out who done it until the big reveal.

8.22.2011

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay
Mockingjay
Mockingjay completes Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy and it is a spectacular ending indeed. I really enjoyed this series. It's got everything that I love in stories: great, believable characters; terrific plot and pacing; ethical conflict; harrowing action sequences; examinations of human nature.

In Mockingjay, Katniss finds herself free of the Capital--but not free of government control. Most of her world believed that District 13 was destroyed some 75 years previously. But they just went underground, literally. The inhabitants rescued her at the explosive end of the last book, hoping to use her as a symbol for the rest of the rebels to rally around. At first, Katniss resists, not wanting to be the cause of more deaths. She manages to cut a deal with the rebel government to save the lives of other victors of the Hunger Games, including that of her erstwhile boyfriend, Peeta. In exchange for their lives, Katniss becomes the Mockingjay. She reluctantly agrees to be filmed to make propaganda. In the background, a real war is being fought. There is a strange disconnect between Katniss's sort of dangerous war and that real war.

Descriptions of life in District 13 add to the feelings of menace this book evokes. Life under President Coin is highly regimented--to the extent that everyone receives a daily schedule they must follow. Food is rationed, providing just enough calories to keep people going. Jobs are assigned. Everyone is micromanaged. Katniss is the only person, outside of the president, who gets some freedom. I wondered--as I expect Collins wanted to me to--that life wouldn't be much better under this regime than the last. If the rebels won and put Coin in control, it's clear that the roles of the Capital and the Districts would be reversed and they'd all be fighting it out in another 75 years or so. The anger that some of the rebels express and their willingness to be as cruel as their enemies call to mind the aftermath of the French and Russian revolutions. I theorize that those reigns of terror were a very bloody kind of catharsis for years of abuse.

The war gets real for Katniss by the end. She gets to rise above her role as a figurehead. She is also witness to some heartbreaking acts of war that make it clear that, unless someone changes the path the country is on, the killing will not stop. The ending is amazing. I think my jaw dropped as I read it. I loved the epilogue that followed. I can't say why for fear of ruining the entire trilogy, so I think I will stop summarizing here.

I think what I love most about these books is that Collins does not pull her punches. She makes these books very violent and dangerous, and you get a strong sense of the stakes people are playing for here. And being the cynic that I am (especially after I read the news), I can believe that governments can be this cruel and that revenge has a very, very long half-life.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire
Catching Fire
It took me a long time to get around to reading Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire, but I am really glad that I picked up the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy at the same time. I spent most of my weekend with Katniss Everdeen and the revolution that she accidentally started.

When we pick up the story again a few months after Katniss won the Hunger Games. Like a twisted version of Miss America, she and her co-winner have to make a publicity tour six months before the next Hunger Games. Though mentally scarred by the experience and sickened by the warped pleasure that Capital citizens take in the Hunger Games, Katniss is looking forward to being out of the spotlight. However, the President visits and makes it clear that she has to keep playing along with their games to keep her family and friends safe. At the same time, we get hints that unrest is spreading throughout the Districts. The lengths that the Capital will go to to keep order are horrifyingly cruel. And yet, I have no trouble believing that people would go so far. I watch the news and I know my history.

It becomes clear that Katniss's attempts to make her small act of rebellion during the Hunger Games was really just an act of love are not fooling anyone that matters. The President arranges things so that Katniss has to compete in yet one more Hunger Games, one that promises to be even deadlier than the last one. By the end of the book, a full scale revolution has broken out. On the one hand, this is a great middle book. It has it's own plot, with great pacing. But on the other, it's a clear set up for the last book.

I love how tough and commonsense Katniss is. She's far from perfect, but she is struggling to save lives and to do the right thing. These books got a lot of press and a lot of readers, but I wish that they got as much attention as the Twilight series. They deserve a wide audience. I'm really looking forward to what Collins comes up with next.

8.19.2011

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City
Zoo City
Lauren Beukes's Zoo City is a delightful blend of noir and contemporary fantasy, set in exotic Johannesburg, South Africa. As soon as I read the first chapter, I was hooked. It was so good I read it in less than a day. There's a lot going on in this story. There's a killer mystery and an interesting premise (that I'll get to in a second). But what makes this book is its atmosphere. Without beating the reader over the head with details, you get a sense of the ricketty, crime ridden tenements where the main character spends most of her time so so strong that you can almost smell the stink of it. The dialogue is peppered with Afrikaans and several African languages and the cast is wildly diverse. I tip my metaphorical hat to Beukes's skill as a writer.

Zinzi December is a part-time lost object retriever and part-time 419 scammer until she gets caught up in a mystery that's a lot bigger than anyone (even the reader) suspects. What complicates matters is that she carries the weight of her brother's murder on her back in the quite literal form of a sloth. Because if the sloth, she can't move on with her life. She was once a drug addicted journalist, living the high life. By the time we meet her, she's off the drugs and in a stable relationship with a man who is reminded of his crimes as a child soldier by a mongoose that lives with him.

The action really gets rolling when, in order to pay off some old debts, Zinzi takes a job tracking down a missing pop star. All of her leads dead end, though she risks her life to try and find out where the girl went. As we read and as Zinzi investigates, there are small hints that something is off. Although neither Zinzi nor I put them together until the utterly thrilling Part II. Until Part II, I was content with the book. It was every interesting, but not spectacular. Part II is bloody spectacular. I hate to give away details in a mystery, but I will say that the missing pop start is just a small part of the bigger crime. It's interesting that Beukes lets you think it's all over at the end of Part I.

So, the premise. This isn't explicitly talked about much in the novel, so you have to pick it up from context. In Zinzi's world, people's crimes are readily apparent by the animal that appears shortly after their crimes--even if the death of the other person was unintentional. Throughout the novel, you get news stories and other hints of what's going on in the rest of the world. If the animal dies, the Undertow--a mysterious and terrifying force--apparently kills the person. It's never explained where these animals and the Undertow come from, or even that they represent. Are they guilt? Are they punishment? I really hope there's a sequel to this book, if only to get more clues.

Zoo City was a very enjoyable read, with many things to recommend it. And I'm not the only one doing the recommending. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award. I very much look forward to her next work.

Quiet, Please, by Scott Douglas

Quiet, Please
Quiet, Please
As I read through Scott Douglas's Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian I often wondered if he worked in the worst library ever. There were almost as many anecdotes about his coworkers as there were about crazy patrons. Not that I'm bothered--crazy people stories are one of the best things about working in libraries--but I wonder what non-library folk will think if they ever pick it up. A book like this really destroys the unflappable image of the librarian.

I've read Douglas's Dispatches before, on McSweeney's Internet Tendencies. The book version has the same style and tone. It meanders from anecdote to anecdote, with frequent asides for trivia, and occasionally interrupted by footnotes (necessary and otherwise). Aside from a sometimes unreliable chronology, there isn't a whole lot to link it all together. There doesn't even seem to be a consistent thesis, as Douglas lurches back and forth from despairing for libraries and their patrons to hope for the continuing role of librarians in the future. If you've spent any time with librarians, you'll know that we do the same. But Douglas does it with bipolar frequency--just about every chapter.

So while there isn't much to take away in the grand scheme of things, the best thing about this book is the crazy people stories. One of the reasons I love going to conferences is that, when you get a bunch of librarians together, we start telling stories about all the whackos that we've encountered. There's something about libraries and crazy people. I suspect it's that, unless people are being criminally disruptive or destructive, we can't really kick them out. But libraries draw them like lodestones. This book is peppered with stories and I enjoyed the hell out of those.

I suppose some readers could also use it to learn about functioning in dysfunctional workspaces. As I said, there are almost as many stories about weirdo co-workers as there are about the public. It reminded me a lot of the little public library where I worked (though I will admit that it wasn't nearly as bad as Douglas's libraries). These stories--although I enjoyed the hit of schadenfreude--made me despair a bit myself. I agree with Douglas's comment that libraries aren't just buildings fun of books. What makes them libraries, and what makes them important, are the people. I'd add, however, that we're going to need good, passionate librarians to take us forward.

I don't know if other readers will really understand what it's like for us until they read this book. We have to fight so hard to keep drawing in new readers and keep a hold of the old ones that we're nice to people who would get bounced out of businesses after five minutes of nonsense. But I will definitely recommend this to two groups. First, I'd recommend it to people who think we just sit around and read all day. And second, I'd recommend it to library workers who need a laugh and a dose of schadenfreude.