Friday, December 30, 2011

Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan

This volume finally cleanses the taint on Saidin. Rand admits his feelings for not just one woman, but Min, Elayne, and Avendhia, all of whom are more than happy to share him. Mat returns to form. Otherwise, there's a lot of people moving around, but it's not clear to me to what purpose. The books seem to have lost the driving plot line (or maybe I've lost it). But it feels like we're moving towards a conclusion, at least.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

In this book Murakami weaves a complicated, beautiful love story in which the protagonists, having met briefly at the age of ten, are not reunited throughout most of the novel. The story teems with references to Proust, Orwell, Janacek, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, among others. In addition to the beautiful strands of magical realism (in which the moon is imbued with as much meaning as Proust's madeleines), the novel also reflects on estranged families--how children cope with being emotionally abandoned by their parents. There's also a fairly harrowing portrayal of the effects of domestic violence (although this interest is far more prevalent in the earlier sections of the book). While the book never fully explains the Sakigake cult, or the Little People who speak to them, or even how the two worlds (1984 and 1Q84) work together, I really enjoyed the story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

This book is a long, exciting spy and technology thriller. It starts with a virus launched against users of T'Rain, a game designed to make certain types of money-laundering possible. But when the virus hits the wrong users, it quickly involves the main characters in the global war on terror. The book is fast paced and it skillfully balances a wide cast of characters. There's some weird chivalry on the part of some of the characters, but otherwise I really enjoyed reading this story.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Omen Machine by Terry Goodkind

With the latest entry in the Sword of Truth series, I hoped that Goodkind might return to the strengths of his old books. This book is better than the last few, mainly because it's shorter, and the preaching (while still annoyingly present) doesn't appear in lengthy monologues anymore. The book is frustrating because it's repetitive and it refuses to see the world in any terms other than the strict guidelines Goodkind has set out for it: Richard and Kahlan and their friends (all of whom are completely and totally devoted to them) are good. Anyone who opposes or disagrees with them is either knowingly or unwittingly working with their evil enemies who are trying to seize power in D'Hara for themselves. Fortunately (at least for Richard and Kahlan) most of those who disagree with them meet their just desserts without Richard's intervention. Unfortunately the book leaves at least two big questions unanswered, so there will likely be a sequel.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

This book gives Kurt Wallander's last case before he slips into the fog of Alzheimer's. His daughter Linda has recently had a baby and her partner's parents go missing suddenly. Wallander finds himself unofficially working a case that contains tricky layers upon layers of treachery and betrayal. This book wraps up most of Wallander's loose ends in a really good mystery.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This book recounts the actions of a sweeper, trying to clear the skels out of Zone One to reclaim Manhattan for human habitation after an apocalyptic zombie plague. While by the end it becomes a moving meditation on survival and humanity, it was a little difficult for me to get into the flow of the story--the time keeps jumping and it was hard for me to piece out what was going on exactly. As a portrait of what it might mean, psychologically, to live in a post-apocalyptic world, I appreciated this book for its thoughtfulness and for its refusal to sugar-coat the experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

In this book Harry Dresden finds himself up against the heirs of the wizard who made World War II so bad--and they're looking to complete his worst magic. Furthermore, Dresden's actions are being curtailed by a blackmailing vampire of the Black Court. Despite these limitations, Dresden does what he does best in fine fashion. I'm really enjoying watching Dresden puzzle out what's right and what's morally acceptable for himself. A fine addition to the series.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This book tells the story of an epic magic competition, made all the more difficult by the two participants falling in love with each other, set against the backdrop (and venue) of a fantastical circus. The prose is incredibly rich, and after reading the book, you'll want nothing more than to attend this circus yourself. But the real strength of the book is in its stakes and challenges--the competitors not only have to figure out what they're up against, but also how to change the game, which can only have an unsatisfactory ending for them as it's designed. With changes and developments up till the very end, this book will leave you exhilarated and delighted.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This book, while not quite Dickensian, weaves a number of related plots together as it follows the baseball career of Henry Skrimshander at Westish College, a small school in the Midwest whose former claim to fame had been the lecture that Herman Melville once gave there. There's the story about baseball, of course, but the book also delves into a variety of friendships in the baseball penumbra and beyond, reaching all the way to the office of the college's president. I thought the characters drove the plot in convincing ways. There were a number of nice nods to literary history (most notably Fifth Business and A Prayer for Owen Meany).

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

This book concludes the story of Eragon, who finds a dragon egg and with it the mandate to challenge the insane rule of Galbatorix. I really enjoyed the development of Murtagh and, to a lesser extent, Roran. Eragon felt like he was written to be *the best at everything* except when he wasn't, which I found to be annoying. A lot of the plot (including the whole Vault of Souls thing) seemed to be deus ex machina developments (which, upon further reflection, are probably necessary because of the problems with Eragon's conceptualization) and I found the whole ancient language thing unsatisfying on both a conceptual (really--there's one magic language) and practical (Paolini's no philologist and no Tolkien) level. I appreciate an ending that requires some sacrifice (as this one does), but even the sacrifice felt more pro-forma (perhaps because Paolini admired this facet of other books?) than necessary. An enjoyable, if long, story, if you can put aside the annoying parts of the world.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards

This book tells the story of Jinx, whose beloved mother was murdered in their own home and who carries the guilt of that murder, since she suspects her own actions and inactions contributed to her mother's death. But when an old family friend comes to visit and they return to that troubled time, Jinx gets a chance to escape from the crippling guilt that's been slowly dismantling her life ever since. This story is both luminous and horrifying and above all a compelling read.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

In this book Flavia de Luce, an 11 year old with a passion for chemistry who's not overly burdened by adult supervision starts out to solve a current mystery, which she quickly discovers is wrapped in a much older one. Flavia is inventive and curious. She works silently alongside the police to uncover the mystery. Generally, she seems to manage very believably for a child and the setting of the book (rural England in the 1950s) offers a rich background upon which for the story to unfold. I'm definitely looking forward to continuing this series.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

This book has a number of elements (evil stepmother, orphans, two boxes that get confused for each other) many readers will find familiar, especially for a young adult story, but they come together in a creative and satisfying way. Despite all the elements of adventure and mystery (although the solution to the mystery's clear from the moment you realize that something mysterious is going on...), the really strong parts of the book are the ones about family and dealing with moving on after someone has died. This book does a beautiful job dealing with death and a sad world with just the right touch of gravity.

Far to Go by Alison Pick

This book is a beautiful story about the power of human courage and the temptations of betrayal in the face of unimaginable evil. It's also a testament to the power of storytelling to reclaim experience. I hate to say too much, as a good deal of the story's power comes from its challenge to the reader to make sense of what's going on and who has control over the narrative.

Iron Council by China Miéville

This book, Miéville's third set in Bas-Lag, comes at a time of unrest: the Caucus appears poised to take over the city of New Crobuzon, already strained by its war with Tesh. Into this volatile mixture comes the Iron Council (the almost mythical result of a workers' strike that led to them running away with a perpetually-moving train). I enjoyed the story of Cutter and Judah the best of all the plot lines which run through the book. As usual, Miéville's prose is elegant and beautiful and even his smallest ideas are wildly fantastic and fantastical. This book takes a little patience: diving into this universe is neither easy nor quick. I'm not as big a fan of the Bas-Lag books as The City and the City or Un Lun Dun, but I haven't read anything by Miéville that I didn't love, either.

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

This book seems to spend most of its time in a holding pattern: Rand's on the edge of going insane, Egwene has almost convinced the Salidar Aes Sedai to turn on Elaida in the White Tower in rebellion, and Elayne and Nynaeve seem to be about to retake the Lion Throne for Elayne. There are so many characters to keep track of (which gets harder because some characters necessarily get shorted in some volumes of the series and then come back hundreds of pages later). I like Egwene and her management of the role of Amyriln Seat the best in this book. Can't wait to get to the Last Battle....but there are still six books to go (the last of which hasn't even been published yet).

Confessor by Terry Goodkind

In what should have been no surprise to me, this book spent 450 pages preaching Goodkind's all-life-is-sacred-and-any-form-of-collectivity-is-a-form-of-slavery morality and then spent the last 150 pages rushing to tie up all the loose ends before magic leaves the world *forever* and everyone dies in a giant void. Cue some 11th hour deus ex machina plot twists and machinations, and Richard saves the day leaving everyone happy but Jagang, who [spoiler alert] finally dies! It seems such a shame that Wizard's First Rule started so promisingly, but lead to this drivel. All the characters suddenly become dogmatic wooden puppets who are too dumb or bull-headed to grasp concepts more difficult than those a schoolchild could understand. The magic system seems to grow increasingly dependent on a weird geometrical system that's not fully explained. I'm definitely undecided on whether I will bother with Omen Machine or not.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphor, and Media into the Twenty-First Century by Marina Warner

This book investigates representations of the spirit and the supernatural, starting early but really hitting its stride around the early eighteenth century and continuing into the twenty-first century. It considers representations of the self and a spiritual presence in material (wax, cloud, photographs, film) and immaterial (ether, air, ectoplasm) forms. The book casts a wide-ranging net to gather its evidence--we see examples drawn from art, literature, material culture, and many other places. Generally it argues that despite our increasing understanding of the processes in the world and our increasing secularization, we still need, perhaps more than ever, representations of spirit. I thought the last chapter, on zombies, was particularly effective. The book had a refreshing tone--it treats moments of spiritualism (like knocking, expulsion of ectoplasm, etc.) as moments to be studied for their interpretative value, not as phenomena to be definitively proven or disproven.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

In this book everything in the Mortal and Caster worlds is falling to pieces since Lena claimed both Light and Dark. The style of the writing in these books still vaguely annoys me, and I'm not finding the Caster mythology/logic entirely convincing. Still, this book seemed to hold it together a little better than the previous two.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

This book tells the sprawling story of a family with secrets by means of extreme compression. It takes five moments in the history of the related characters and through these five extended scenes shows a lot more about the personal histories and secrets entangled in those moments. At times the book was a bit too glib--even though the characters are faced with ambiguity, the reader knows enough more about what happened and what the characters were like to draw her own conclusions, which works against the book's carefully constructed demonstration that our history remains partially inaccessible and unknowable, even as we're living it. It was definitely interesting to see the characters' assessments of each other and their relationships changing as time passed. Unfortunately Paul Bryant, the biographer trying to figure out the real story (or dig up the dirt and hidden secrets) of the Valance family, whose scion Cecil was an up-and-coming poet until he died in the trenches in World War I, was extremely annoying to me, which colored my enjoyment of the second half of the book. Overall, it does present a world you can get lost in and a plausible and entertaining story.

The Night Eternal by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

As this book opens, things look bleak for humankind: the Master has leashed a nuclear apocalypse that covers the world in polluted darkness for all but a few hours a day, humans have turned on each other, vampires round up humans to live in camps, and there's even dissent among the resistance. This book changes up the relationship dynamics within the group and gives a full background of the vampires (although they turn out to be as mythologically/religiously/magically grounded as anything, in an interesting twist for a series that started out portraying vampirism as a disease to be studied scientifically). Overall a fitting conclusion to the series.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

This book collects short fiction in a variety of forms. Some of the stories are as short as a sentence (a favorite in this category is "Collaboration with Fly": "I put the word on the page, but he added the apostrophe"), and others are longer meditations. There's a fair amount of engagement with grammar, words, and the meaning of language, in addition to the literary tradition and canon. Two of my favorites from this genre are "Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho" (a brilliant meditation what we can and may get out of reading Beckett) and "Walk" (an encounter at a conference between a translator of Proust [presumably a version of Davis herself, since the story quotes her Swann's Way] and an unappreciative critic). Finally, there are the almost-scientific accounts of characters in various aspects of their lives (Mrs. D.'s attempt to find a suitable maid, a study of the long lives of Vi and Helen (with addenda about Hope), the letters a fourth grade class writes to Stephen who's in the hospital, and the changes that a baby brings, for example). Many of the more-sustained stories (and even some of the shorter ones) think a lot about family--how we relate to each other, what we owe each other, and how we change each other. While some of the stories are more effective than others, all in all they provoke thought--especially about family and language.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

In this book Roy's luminous language tells the story of tragedy coming to an Indian family with the visit of their cousin, Sophie Mol. While we know from the very first pages that the stories of the twins Rahel and Estha, their mother Ammu, and their cousin Sophie Mol cannot come to a conventionally happy ending, the book works against convention in its structure, its language, and its plot. If not happy through and through, or entirely hopeful, it does offer a visionary path towards a better life--both through a trans-human ecology and through a commitment to storytelling as a way of reordering and giving meaning to a harsh life. Although the boundaries some of the characters cross in this book may be hard for readers to swallow, the book affirms boundary-crossing as an important activity, and reminds us that these boundaries are only human constructions that get in the way of our full potential. Booker award winner, 1997

The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston by Maurie McInnis

This book looks at material culture in antebellum Charleston to understand the complex political and social system in place there at that time. McInnis reads the architecture, art (ranging from public sculpture to privately-owned paintings), and furniture and decoration of the buildings in the city to show both the elite's reliance on and attempts to control enslaved peoples and the enslaved people's resistance (mostly in the form of carving out space for a private life). This book supplements its readings of material artifacts with both primary written accounts and secondary, scholarly accounts. Overall it is an intriguing book that paints a compelling portrait of antebellum Charleston without romanticizing its history.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Pyramid: The First Kurt Wallander Cases

The five short stories that comprise this book work together to show how Wallander became the detective we recognize throughout the series, both personally and professionally. We see his marriage to Mona begin and end in a series of snapshots, and we see him take on more responsibility through a case involving the murder of his neighbor to become a detective. We watch his detective skills improve (though the two shortest stories seem far more about his family life than his detecting). Overall an enjoyable collection.

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

In this book Thomas Raith, a vampire of the White Court, calls in a favor from Harry Dresden. As it turns out Raith and Dresden are half-brothers, and there's a major power-struggle about to go down for control of the White Court--a struggle which plays out in part over the production of an upstart adult film. I really liked seeing Harry get some family in this book (even if it's family with baggage), and I thought the White Court stuff worked really well. On the other hand, there was a real clunker of a scene between Murphy and her mother at a family reunion picnic. I think this scene surprised me because Butcher usually writes more effectively than that. I'm interested to see where this series is heading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Collected Poems, 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott

This collection of poetry shows off Walcott's virtuosity and skill. He has a fine ear for the English language and shows its richness and its beauty throughout this volume. Walcott also uses his poetry to think through colonialism, exile, and the United States empire in really productive ways, turning to classical myth and religion on one hand and the rhythms of Calypso and the Caribbean on the other to help with the work.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Phantom by Terry Goodkind

This book is more of the same. It begins with a complicated scene with a spell that should be emblematic but ends up biological (or something--the metaphors aren't working as well as Goodkind apparently thinks they are) and ends with a lot of preaching and monologues. I don't remember the exact plot of the early books anymore (though the memory of how much I enjoyed Wizard's First Rule is one of the reasons I'm still finishing this series, which jumped the proverbial shark several books ago) and I have the sneaking suspicion that the boxes of Orden are being retconned for plot purposes here. Everyone in this series is really good, unless they're really bad and many of the really bad characters from earlier in the series have come to their senses and become really good. I liked hearing about the war wizard Baraccus, but that was the most entertaining part of the book. I'll finish the series to see how things end up, but if you're just starting Goodkind, read Wizard's First Rule and then pretend he never wrote anything else.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy Sayers

This play cycle chronicles the life of Jesus Christ from his birth in Bethlehem to his resurrection thirty three years later. I found the cycle very moving: the characters were clearly delineated, and through twelve short plays, many episodes from the Gospels appear in a moving fashion. These plays are prompted by the author's sincere faith, but they are rigorously presented--in particular the relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot is carefully depicted. If Judas were simply evil, then Jesus might look like a dupe, but instead Sayers demonstrates the tragedy and the glory of the Passion.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Firewall by Henning Mankell

In this book Inspector Kurt Wallander investigates a series of deaths that seem at first to be unconnected, but later seem to be part of a crime with global financial implications. The crime itself seemed to take a backseat to Wallander here--his love life, his relationship with his colleagues, and his role at the police department. The crime wasn't entirely clear to me, even at the end. I don't mind this change of emphasis, exactly, but I would have liked a little clearer picture of how the crime hung together.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Silence by Becca FitzPatrick

This book was marginally less annoying than the other books in this series. Nora looses her memory and spends the first half of the book trying to get it back, and the second half trying to foil Hank Millar's nefarious plans. The story was less coherent (or it felt like Nora could spend more time running around doing what she wanted instead of being stuck doing things like school. It also set up at least a fourth book in the series. I think I'd like some more exploration of why Patch might not be a perfect match for Nora....

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

This book chronicles the journey of a research scientist to a small village in the Amazon to investigate the death of a college and the slow progress of the development of a fertility drug. But when the scientist, Marina Singh, arrives in the Amazon she realizes that there are all sorts of secrets and she must confront her own past. I found the plot compelling and I did want to hear more about Marina and the mysterious doctor in charge of the research project, Dr. Swenson, but I found the ending in which everything happened really quickly unsatisfying--mostly because a lot happened really quickly.

Snow White by Donald Barthelme

I was intrigued by the playfulness of the language in
this book. Certain words are regularly twisted (bath to baff, housewife to horsewife). Of course, the fairy tale itself is a strange amalgamation of Snow White (in the Grimm and Disney versions) and Rapunzel. There are hints (at least to my mind) of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac as well. In this muddle of cultural references there's a lot going on with both gender politics and waste. Definitely one of those books you can't attempt to fully understand in whole: the pieces don't fit together nicely into a neat puzzle.

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

I hate to say it, but this book dragged a little in places. I found the Aes Sedai power manipulations to be most interesting--especially Nynaeve and Elayne coming into their own. It's a little hard for me to follow what Rand's actually trying to accomplish here--perhaps because there's a fair amount to be done by other characters, but Rand needs to be around because he's the Dragon Reborn? I'm also somewhat frustrated by the three women meant for him part. It seems a little indulgent to me....

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Modernism by Michael Levenson

This book reexamines modernism, defining it not by its formal practices or content, but by its oppositional culture. Levenson contends that to understand modernism we have to pay more attention to its roots before World War I (and this time period is where the majority of the book's attention lies). The book does a nice job moving back and forth across the Channel, although I felt its attention to the United States was a bit lacking in places. It covers a broad range of artists and does a nice job giving both the overall sweep of the movement and close readings of important modernists. It covers a variety of genres (focusing on narrative fiction, lyric poetry, and drama) and represents a worthy addition to and reconsideration of our understanding of modernism.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

This collection of poetry gives you everything Bishop ever published and more. My main complaint about the edition itself (not the poetry) is that it doesn't provide line numbers. That quibble aside, this collection is fantastic. I particularly enjoyed "Insomnia," "One Art," "Sestina," and "In the Waiting Room" this time around. The beauty of this poetry rests as much in what it doesn't say, and in the task of digging out the pieces. I'm also interested in the way this poetry blurs the line between the surreal and the real and the way in which it portrays nature. Several of these poems definitely make my essential list.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chainfire by Terry Goodkind

This book is yet another frustrating entry in the Sword of Truth series. Richard wakes up to an attack and discovers that he's the only one who remembers his wife, Kahlan. Also, there are serious holes in prophecy (that is to say, books of prophecy are going blank, and no one can remember the parts that are missing). Unfortunately the plot sounds more intriguing than it ends up being. There's a lot of exposition that mostly comes off as sounding preachy. I don't find the prophecy system particularly convincing either (too much math and mysticism involved). I'm sticking with the series because I want to know how things end, but I don't have too much hope for these books.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ascension by Christie Golden

This book took what we knew about the Sith, Abeloth, the Jedi, and the GA and turned everything upside down. It did a better job than I was expecting keeping things exciting and setting up a final confrontation between Sith and Jedi. I particularly enjoyed watching Ben and Vestara interact in this book. I also enjoyed the machinations on the Empire side of things (Jag, the Moffs, Daala). It reminded me of the days when Thrawn was running around and causing trouble!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

As I read this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the role of Okonkwo. While he has a number of flaws (his temper, for example), he definitely fills the role of a tragic hero for me. This book, like Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God definitely has an anthropological bent--but here that bent turns metafictional as the narrator reflects on masculine and feminine stories. Finally the book's critique of colonialism is both scathing and heart-rending.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

When I re-read this book, I particularly enjoyed tracing the anthropological strain (manifested in the author's use of folk tales) throughout the book. I wondered a little about Janie's development: she always defines herself as a romantic self (that is, she ends her childhood when she is attracted to a young man, and she becomes a woman when her illusions about the romance of marriage are crushed, for example). It was frustrating to me that there seemed to be little interest in Janie's development of herself for herself.

Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World by Chad Emerson

This book contains a collection of essays about the history of Walt Disney World. It took me several months to read because I read it intermittently, an essay at a time. Some of the essays were really excellent and clarified and informed me about bits of Disney history with which I was not previously familiar. Other essays seemed to retrod familiar ground. Overall it was an entertaining collection.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This book starts as a brief bildungsroman, but it develops into an intriguing story about regret and whether you can go back to reevaluate the past. Anthony Webster is a young man whose girlfriend dumps him for one of his best friends. When that friend later commits suicide, Anthony puts the whole episode out of his mind. But forty years later, he receives a strange bequest that prompts him to reexamine his past. While the book comes together in a thought-provoking way and was generally enjoyable, there's something a bit pat about the whole thing.

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell

The title of this book summarizes pretty accurately how I felt reading it--I really enjoyed the story, but I never felt like I knew anything about what was happening until the author was good and ready for me to know (which was ahead of Wallander at times, but never too far in advance). I felt like the mystery this time remained more mysterious than usual (I didn't have a great sense of why the killer turned out to be such a nut job). Still it was an enjoyable read.

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

This book finds Deryn, Alek, and the Leviathan on a journey around the globe, first to rescue inventor Nikola Tesla, then to get him and his doomsday machine to New York to support the war effort. Along the way there are some highly interesting stops where Pancho Villa, William Randolph Hearst, and Sakichi Toyoda make appearances. I really like the alternative history in this book--Westerfeld has done a great and imaginative job figuring out how these technological differences (Darwinists who alter DNA to build beasties to do magnificent things, and Clankers who build machines) would play out in an historical context. The best part of the story, though, is all about how Deryn and Alek finally learn to trust each other.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis by David Herman

This collection had a several very good articles. I particularly found the ones that connected recent work in computers to narratology, the "Speak, Friend, and Enter" article on linguistic forking paths, and the first essay (which gave a great account of "Cat in the Rain" helpful. The collection made a good case for the continued relevance of narratology.

The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Tranströmer

This collection of poetry is full of beautiful images. I particularly liked the blend between appreciation for the natural world and awareness of and engagement with urban spaces. I also found a lot of the poet's interest in music very revealing. An enjoyable collection that spans a venerable career.

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

In this book Harry Dresden finds himself up against the vampires (a vampire of the Red Court challenges him to a duel) while he's called on to find the Shroud of Turin which has been stolen from a church in Italy and which seems to be on its way to Chicago. I think the key point of this novel was when one of the spirits that Harry has summoned asks him--why do you do it? He doesn't really have an answer to hand, and I'm hoping that in future books he'll explore his motivations more.

The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

This murder mystery is like many of Mankell's: it has the mystery, but it also deals with the question of what the role of the police in civil society is. As in other books in this series, the murders are prompted by the murderer's sense that justice is not being done, and the victims are reprehensible. Still, Mankell (and Wallander, his detective) demonstrate a faith in justice and in the police to solve even the most carefully-planned and executed murders.

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

In this book Percy Jackson appears at the Roman equivalent of Camp Half-Blood but he has lost his memory. He makes friends with Frank and Hazel, outcasts even in the camp's disgraced Fifth Legion and gets sent on a quest to redeem the honor of the Fifth Legion and help stop Gaea's evil plot to take over the world. I really enjoyed looking at the Roman side of things--Riordan has obviously put a lot of thought into how the differences between Greece and Rome would play out in his fictional world. The book is very funny at parts, moving at others, and full of wholesome fun. I can't wait to see where the series goes from here (and for the Greek and Roman counterparts to meet in full!).

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I definitely appreciated the achievements of this book much more this time around than I ever have before. I'm not quite sure what clicked (whether the epic ambitions / ultimate parody of the journey the Bundrens take, Darl's prescient ability to know what's going on, poor Vardaman's inability to process his mother's death, Cora's self-righteous assumptions, or Anse's sly laziness), but I could see how this novel works better than ever.

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

This book throws a lot of balls in the air but manages them well. I found myself surprised by several twists. It took a little bit of time to figure out how the imaginary world of the novel works, and how the main character fits into that world, but I ended up really liking the main character, who fits into the noir mold of a detective struggling to do what's right in spite of his troubled past. I'm hoping there's more to come from this story!

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I was really intrigued by the figures of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe when I read this book again. I found Mrs. Ramsay's ability to make connections (and a sort of art out of the social) particularly moving--especially when you consider how ephemeral that art (and even Lily's art--she cannot create her painting until she accepts that it might moulder in someone's attic someday) is. Additionally, I was moved by the lyrical beauty of the prose. Finally, I was intrigued by Woolf's attention to punctuation--for example the characters who die in bracketed statements.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Choices of One by Timothy Zahn

I really enjoyed this book which delivers old and new favorite characters (Han, Luke, Leia, a little Wedge, a little Vader, Mara Jade, Thrawn, and the Hand of Judgment stood out) in the midst of the rebellion. Lots of great action (and not a few betrayals), but more to the point, the characters were great. I particularly enjoyed seeing Luke as still a farmboy--definitely someone who doesn't yet have it all figured out. Han and Leia, who still haven't admitted they like each other yet, are also good here. All in all a great story.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

This book purports to be an oral history of the zombie war. It's a really enjoyable account. The book does a good job of working its way through to cover the war fully despite being set up as a series of interviews. We don't get to know any of the individual characters terribly well (many of them just have one section), but overall it paints a compelling and exciting portrait of humanity in crisis.

Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck

This book is about Blossom Culp, a young girl who lives in the Midwest in 1913. She's got the Second Sight and the main plot of the book is about how she sees the ghost of a British boy who died on the Titanic and gets to visit the Queen as a result. I found the plot a little bit slow, but I really like Blossom and her friends Miss Dabney and Alexander Armsworth.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

This book made a lot more sense (or the plot lines seemed to work together better this time around). I intrigued by Dracula's move to London--he's interested in the new urbanization and the huge population accessible to him from there. I also found the Renfield subplot more comprehensible this time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley

In this memoir Sandra Beasley focuses on how her allergies have affected her life. She covers some of the scientific aspects of food allergies (and the distinction between an allergy and an intolerance), but mostly it's a series of personal (both her own and other people's) experiences navigating a world that's not particularly aware of or set up to cater to food allergies. I enjoyed the stories, and I enjoyed the style of the writing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

As I read this book , I was interested by the women this time through. Hemingway at least mentions childbirth in three of the first four sections. The men in this book seem overwhelmed and unable to connect with the women; when I was younger I read this as evidence of Hemingway's misogyny, now I think it's much more indicative of the trauma the male characters are suffering.

The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound by T. S. Eliot

I found the drafts of this poem fascinating. I was a little surprised to see that Vivian Eliot suggested the line, "what you get married for if you don't want children." Pound's revisions definitely made the poem less metrical and more personal. As for the poem itself, I was fascinated by the appearance of bodily trauma in the poem (people that couldn't see, feel, hear) and by the changing state of water in the poem.

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

This book got much better in its second half than the first. Things really started moving when Egwene returned to Salidar and was invested as a rival Amyriln Seat to Elaida in the Tower. If the rest of the series is more like the first half of this book, it will be a slog to get through it; if it keeps up the pace of the second half, it will be much more enjoyable.

The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

I enjoyed this book, although I think the movie made a more compelling narrative. The book seems to be written as an attempt to capitalize on the interest generated by the movie. It uses both Logue's diaries and records and a variety of other sources to tell the story from the side of both George VI and Lionel Logue. While I think the claim that Logue saved the monarchy overstated (and indeed, the movie and the book both seem to exaggerate his friendship with George VI in different ways), the book gives a nice portrait of Britain and its king.

Naked Empire by Terry Goodkind

It was easier to read this book than I expected; the story came back to me fairly easily (after eight or nine years). I did remember why (in part) I stopped reading this series. I like the characters (especially Zedd), but there are a lot of didactic asides about when violence is justified, moral relativism, and achieving balance. If I wanted someone to lecture me on those topics, I'd register for a philosophy course.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much by Spencer Quinn

In the latest entry in the Chet and Bernie mysteries, they find themselves at a camp where a young boy has suddenly gone missing. As usual, Quinn does a great job both capturing Chet's perspective and making his communications realistic. I could hardly put this book down.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

If you thought that Harry Dresden's life couldn't get any worse, this book sets out to prove you wrong. He's in a funk because his girlfriend now has vampiric tendencies, he's almost out of money, and the White Council, the Red Court of the Vampires, and apparently the fairies are all out to get him! To add to the confusion, his first love, Elaine, whom he thought was dead, suddenly reappears. I really liked the way this plot came together. I also thought the faerie mythology was deftly handled. A great addition to the series.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

This book combines Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax's search for a third witch (after Magrat's defection to become Queen of Lancre) with a spoof of the opera generally and The Phantom of the Opera more specifically. I definitely found myself chortling at this book. The witches are some of my favorite Discworld characters, and they don't disappoint here!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Legends II: New Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Robert Silverberg

I didn't enjoy this collection quite as much as I enjoyed the first one, but it was still enjoyable. It contained the following eleven short novels: "Homecoming" by Robin Hobb, "The Sworn Sword" by George R. R. Martin, "The Yazoo Queen" by Orson Scott Card, "Lord John and the Succubus" by Diana Gabaldon, "The Book of Changes" by Robert Silverberg, "The Happiest Dead Boy in the World" by Tad Williams, "Beyond Between" by Anne McCaffrey, "The Messenger" by Raymond E. Feist, "Threshold" by Elizabeth Haydon, "The Monarch of the Glen" by Neil Gaiman, and "Indomitable" by Terry Brooks. I particularly liked the stories by Hobb (you see a character really find herself and change from an insufferable prig to a strong heroine), Martin (Dunk and Egg at it again), Card (I need to read the full Alvin Maker series), Silverberg (great story about art and poetry), Haydon (nice twist at the end), and Gaiman (again, I need to read American Gods). I thought the others were OK, though I couldn't really get into the Feist story, I had read the Gabaldon before, the McCaffrey story felt a little fluffy, the Brooks story felt way too much like you needed familiarity with the full world, and the Williams story was a little far out there for me. Overall I enjoyed the collection.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Although this book is not my favorite work of Joyce's, I enjoyed reading it this time through. Like his more complicated books, Portrait makes more sense if you pick a few threads to follow through the book like lifelines. I traced naming in particular this read through. Although Stephen Dedalus can be self-centered and downright irritating at times, the book does a lovely job representing his consciousness.

The High Lord by Trudi Canavan

I read this book because I was part way through the series (which I started based on a positive review somewhere online), but I was not impressed. The writing is clunky, the magic system is clunky, and the plot is clunky--Canavan seems far more interested in pairing her characters willy nilly than in making them consistent. The high/black magic thing (where you can take power from another magician or another living thing) provokes some interesting ethical debates, but Canavan does no more than skim the surface. I know there's a sequel trilogy, but I have other things I'd far rather read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History: Volume IV: Global America (1915-2000) by D. W. Meinig

This volume begins by looking at the changes in technology (like the car and airplane) that changed American life, and then at the migrations within the country. It ends with American "missions"--that is U.S. involvement in the world beyond its borders. It chooses not to go into the changes that happened because of and after September 11. This volume, like the previous three, offers an entertaining and informative geography of the United States and indirectly makes a strong case for the viability of geography as a discipline.

The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History: Volume III: Transcontinental America (1850-1915) by D. W. Meinig

This volume overlaps slightly with the previous volume; Meinig returns to before the Civil War to cover the geographical history of the West in more detail. Then he shifts his focus to the country as a whole to look at railroads, the economy, the population, and how people were beginning to be united again after the Civil War. He closes by looking at American spheres of influence in the world. As with previous volumes, this book provides a good mixture of specific and general, lots of maps, and a fair amount of history.

The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History: Volume II: Continental America (1800-1867) by D. W. Meinig

This volume covers the expansion of the United States from a country on the Atlantic seaboard to one that covers the continent. It was clearly organized--first showing how the country acquired the territory, then looking at patterns of settlement, and then covering the Civil War before closing by showing the US in relation to its neighbors. If you're looking for a solid geography that tracks both details and the big picture and which is well-illustrated, you won't be disappointed here. You can get a lot of history from this book, too, although it is not a full replacement for a history.

Legends: Stories by the Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Robert Silverberg

This anthology houses a phenomenal collection of short fantasy. There wasn't a story in here that I didn't enjoy. While I was familiar with some authors, and not with others, between the introductions and the pieces chosen, I never felt totally lost. "The Little Sisters of Eluria" by Stephen King was set in the Dark Tower world and was a nice set piece with Roland's experience with some really creepy ladies. "The Sea and Little Fishes" by Terry Pratchett shows off Granny Weatherwax and her headology at its best. "Debt of Bones" by Terry Goodkind made me decide to pick the Sword of Truth stories back up again; it was a beautiful story about Zed before the wall shutting magic out, with a heart-warming twist at the end. "Grinning Man" by Orson Scott Card was set in the America you hear about in tall tales. I definitely want to pursue this series as well. "The Seventh Shrine" by Robert Silverbeg was set on Majipoor; I really enjoyed its exploration of cross-cultural communication and misunderstanding. "Dragonfly" by Ursula LeGuin is an Earthsea story; I think I've read this one before. I actually don't remember much of "The Burning Man" by Tad Williams. "The Hedge Knight" by George R. R. Martin is the start of the Dunk and Egg stories. I really liked this one; it sets up them as a great pair and offers the potential for even more stories of the Seven Kingdoms (also something nice to do while waiting on The Winds of Winter). "Runner of Pern" by Anne McCaffrey may have been my least favorite story of the collection; I just couldn't get into the whole runner thing (which was a big deal for most of the story). "The Wood Boy" by Raymond Feist is another story that I don't remember as well. The collection concludes with Robert Jordan's "New Spring," which shows a younger Moirane meeting Lan for the first time.

The Velvet Horn by Andrew Lytle

This book is one you have to ease yourself into slowly. Its outer layer showing a Southern family at the death of the patriarch, slowly melts away, revealing years and years of betrayals and lies. In other words, this book is Southern Gothic at its best.

Sidetracked by Henning Mankell

This book shows the Ystad police department at a crossroads: Björn is retiring and, after Hansson fills in temporarily, a woman will arrive to take his place. Kurt Wallander finds himself in charge of a difficult investigation of a series of scalpings at this time. We get to watch the murders being committed as Wallander and his colleagues struggle to solve them. The mystery for me this time was not only could Wallander find the killer in time, but who was the killer and what was his motivation. I really enjoyed this book--it's one of the most interesting of Mankell's that I've read yet.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I think this book needs a resistant reader. If you don't resist it, it's easy to get caught up in the feel good messages (look at women coming together to fight racism! look at how bad things were just fifty years ago! how far we've come!), and forget the very real questions of race and class that still haunt this country. The book also seems to reinforce a lot of heteronormative standards. The story was incredibly compelling, in part because Stockett builds in so many mysteries (what happened to Constantine? what's up with Celia?) and questions. Many elements of this book (the pie, Celia, the toilets on Hilly's front yard, the Senator's son) seemed way over the top, but it is definitely a thought-provoking read.

Ape House by Sara Gruen

This book made me rethink my career path, if only temporarily. I really enjoyed reading about the bonobos and I thought the research/bonobo plot was strong and nuanced. I was less enamored of the reporter whose marriage was on the brink all novel. I also liked the way this story thought about how we entertain ourselves and what it means to be human. A great read.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text by Mary Shelley

In this edition of Frankenstein, we get Mary Shelley's earliest take on the story. I was particularly interested in following Shelley's ideas about developing familial and community structures. I was also surprised (again) with the monster's eloquence--no dumb brute here! Finally Victor Frankenstein seemed to be much more of a selfish jerk than I had previously thought him.

Selected Poems and Four Plays by William Butler Yeats

This collection contains most of Yeats's most familiar poetry, organized by original book, and four of his short plays. I really enjoyed watching Yeats's interest in Irish mythology and Irish politics develop and fade. I thought the plays were quite good--and the poetry definitely took on more of an interest in drama as time went on. Finally, I enjoyed the classical allusions (especially to topics related to Troy).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Crack in the Lens by Steve Hockensmith

In this book Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer return to Old Red's old stomping grounds to try to solve the mystery of his murdered girlfriend. The plot definitely kept me on my toes. The writing is serviceable, if you don't mind lots of cowboy slang.

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

This book has all the parts for a great murder mystery: a man with no enemies who turns up dead, a cop who's good at his job but bad at his life, and lots of great detective work. These books are more interested in the psyche of Kurt Wallander and digging up how the police solve the cases than in tricking the reader (who knows from almost the first page who dies and why). A really engaging book.

Absolutely, Positively by Heather Webber

This book is a fluffy murder mystery. I enjoyed it, but it's not anything particularly unusual. I found Lucy's hangups about her relationship with Sean to be tedious.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I felt like I was missing something from the start of this novel--it started in medias res, but in a confusing way. I enjoyed following the adventures of Harry Dresden, and I thought Michael's character was especially compelling, but this was not my favorite book in the series.

The Scar by China Miéville

I really enjoyed this book, although you never know quite where everyone stands. Bellis Coldwine is fleeing New Crobuzon because she has noticed that the government has been going after the friends and acquaintances of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. But before her ship can reach its colonial destination, it's hijacked by the Armada, a mysterious floating city on its way to great things under the leadership of the Lovers. Bellis finds herself caught in webs of betrayals, where no one is trustworthy, as she moves through a fantastic landscape. This book is really well written and full of thrilling ideas.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

This edition contains good complements to Heart of Darkness in the three short novellas that precede it. I was particularly interested in following the structure of Marlow's journey this time--the timeline gets trippy and there's a lot of delayed recognition. I also enjoyed paying specific attention to Conrad's use of particular words.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

This book does a great job of continuing the story of The Magicians. I didn't have much trouble slipping back into the world of Fillory. I really enjoyed the way that Julia's story of how she became a magician (and its costs) paralleled the story of Quentin's inadvertent quest. I thought Grossman did a particularly remarkable job of giving actions costs and consequences while still leaving me hopeful at the end of the book. I hope he continues to write in this world.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

In this book we explore Moscow in the early years of the new millennium with a British expatriate working for a financial company. He gets drawn into a relationship with a Russian girl, and with helping her and her aunt with a real estate deal. We watch him ignore his intuition as the deal turns shadier and shadier. I found it to be a fascinating character study.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

I enjoyed this book, which has more than a little Dickens in it. When Jaffy Brown finds himself in the jaws of a tiger, his whole world changes. He goes to work for Jamrach, who specializes in exotic animals, and eventually finds himself on a voyage to capture a dragon. Once the party gets the dragon, though, things start going horribly wrong. In the end, this novel becomes a story of the limits of humanity and friendship in dire circumstances. This book is both vivid and compelling and fans of Moby Dick and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will find it deals with similar themes.

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

This book drove two main facts about Isaac Newton home: he was a brilliant scientist and thinker, and a very unpleasant man. I thought the descriptions of Newton's scientific and mathematical achievements were well done and clear enough for a lay person (like myself) to understand, and that Gleick did a good job of showing the man behind the discoveries and demonstrating how he fit into his society and time.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

In this book Bill Bryson tackles one of the English language's best- and least-known dramatists, William Shakespeare. Bryson does an excellent job going over the available sources on Shakespeare's life with his typical jovial and enjoyable prose. There's not a lot of analysis of the plays as literature, and there's a fair amount of historical background (I think especially because there are so few hard facts), but a brief and helpful overview of Shakespeare's life.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

This book is an amazing tour de force: the world is crumbling, and seven strangers are called upon to go make the Shrike pilgrimage--a journey to the strange world of Hyperion, where the Time Tombs go backward in time, to face the Shrike. One will be granted his wishes, and the others will die. To pass the time on their journey, these pilgrims tell of their connections to Hyperion. In the race against the Ousters (a differently-evolved branch of humanity which is seen as uncivilized and threatens Hyperion), though, not everyone is who he seems. The individual stories are great and the frame narrative is gripping. There's also a lot of interest in both Chaucer and Keats, which makes the story rich with literary allusions. An absolute must-read.

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

This book was so good, it had me foisting it on people almost before I was done reading it myself. It's the story of two young girls who find themselves drawn to Un Lun Dun, a sort of mirrored version of London, where broken and un-used things often find themselves, and a world menaced by the Smog (a problem which London appears to have solved). In addition to the sheer pleasures of Miéville's inventiveness and imagination, the book manages simultaneously to send its heroine on a quest and mock the conventions of the quest genre. I might not give this to kids who haven't read Harry Potter--it's so good, they might not find Potter quite as satisfying when they get around to him!

Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi by Dean Faulkner Wells

This book is an intriguing hybrid: not quite fully a memoir (Wells is only interested in her life insofar as it intersects with her family--we don't even learn her first husband's name, and her life story stops abruptly after Faulkner's death) and not a family history either (although Wells does do a nice job of citing her sources and clearly labeling stories as family legend or based on some other source, it's definitely more personal than just a history of the Faulkners). If you're looking for anecdotal stories about the Faulkner family, look no farther: this book will leave you feeling like you know William and his mother Maud (and the rest of the family to a lesser extent). Altogether an enjoyable read.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

In this book Rincewind gets sent across Discworld to the Counterweight Continent, where he quickly gets caught up in a revolution of sorts. He runs into Cohen the barbarian (also known as Ghengiz Cohen), who is determined to conquer, despite his old age and Teach, the member of his horde intent on civilizing the rest. I found this book humorous, but not as compelling as some of the other Discworld novels.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I enjoyed reading this book, which chronicles the last job of a pair of hired killers, the Sisters Brothers, who are instructed by the mysterious Commodore to find and kill Herman Warm after extracting the formula (for what we discover only late in the novel) from him. I found the dynamics between Charlie and Eli Sisters particularly moving--deWitt does a great job of showing the characters' nuanced and changing morality and the shifting power dynamic between the brothers. A great Western!

The Cherokees by Grace Steele Woodward

This book definitely reflects the time in which it was written. I was looking for a fairly basic and comprehensive history of the Cherokees. I found that history here. I think Woodward did a good job going to primary sources for her facts, and it mostly covered the history I wanted to hear about (although I was hoping for more on the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation after the US government forcibly relocated the Cherokees to what is now Oklahoma). But, the attitude of the author (that Cherokee culture became worth preserving at the point where they adopted Western attitudes and became, in her words, "civilized") was troubling to me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov

In this book members of both the first and second Foundations are concerned that the Seldon Plan is proceeding too well and with too little deviation. So both groups start to investigate what could be causing the lack of aberrations. I enjoyed watching the layers being peeled back, and I really enjoyed the character of Golan Trevise.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexican Border by Rachel C. St. John

This book gives a concise, yet informative history of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, especially between El Paso and the Pacific Ocean. In so doing, it shows how different people and governments use the border--not just to control immigration, but also to, at times, challenge state sovereignty, collect revenue, avoid customs duties, gain a military advantage, and police morality. Indeed, the idea of fencing the border came late. In the conclusion, St. John lays out her cards: she believes that the border fence is not the best solution to the challenges of illegal immigration, and that the U.S. and Mexico should work together, along with the transnational community, to come up with a more flexible method of policing the border. I also learned more than I ever knew about the Mexican Revolution. A well-written and thought-provoking book.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

In this book Music With Rocks In It hits Discworld in a big way. When Buddy finds a guitar in a strange shop and forms a band with Glod and Cliff, they start making music that drives everyone wild. Even Death's granddaughter Susan (who's filling in for him) finds herself fascinated by the music. This book had  a lot of clever jokes about rock and roll (and I'm sure I missed many of them as well). An enjoyable read.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

It took me a little while to figure out where this book was going, in part because The Dragon Reborn ended with everyone coming together again in Tear, and The Shadow Rising started with everyone together. Here, everyone's coping with the Tower breaking. Some aspects of the book--especially the dreamworld--were a bit too convenient (how can we have all these far-flung characters in communication with each other in a timely fashion, the author asks...), but I found myself increasingly intrigued by the plots, especially of the Forsaken, who are gaining a more cohesive presence in the books.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

I still don't know how I feel about the main character or her actions in this novel. Set after a biological terrorist attack which has infected the entire earth's population with Maternal Death Syndrome, a condition which kills pregnant women, the novel portrays a population facing the coming end of human existence on earth. While scientists have made some steps toward overcoming the problem (using pre-attack frozen embryos and women who volunteer to spend their pregnancies in a coma and then die after the baby's birth), these solutions are far from ideal. The novel looks at the choices of one idealistic, teenage girl in the face of these massive changes to the world she lives in. As I said earlier, it's hard for me to tell exactly how I feel about Jessie's choices. While I admire the courage of her convictions, I can't help feeling that she's not fully considering the choice she makes (not least of which because she's so young). An intriguing exploration of choice and sacrifice--but scary!

The Novice by Trudi Canavan

I have to admit, this book felt clunky to me, in both dialogue and plotting. At least one romance seemed to sprout up out of nowhere, and all the bullying that happens at the school seemed a bit over the top (surely someone could do something to stop it or mitigate it). At the very end, the book suggests that there's more to the leader of the Guild's black magic than we might guess, so I'll read the third book to see what that is (I have a hard time stopping series).

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

I really enjoyed this book. I didn't have to wait six years for this one (just started the series in the spring in anticipation of the HBO adaptation), but I'll happily wait for the next one if it turns out as compelling. I am particularly compelled by Martin's exploration of embodiment in the series and the text. So many characters confront the body's relationship to identity: whether from being smaller than normal (Tyrion), larger than normal (Hodor), losing part of the body (Bran, Jamie), or changing themselves entirely (Arya). I don't have a good theory that links it all together, yet, but I think in this aspect of the books especially (and also in the ways Martin plays with our generic expectations, killing characters like Ned Stark and gradually introducing the magic/dragons/white walkers) they are more than just thrillers or fantasy and do important cultural work. I found myself shocked at the (implied) fate of at least one beloved (to me) character and the reappearance of someone entirely unexpected. Eager for the next one!

Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera by Bryan Peterson

This book is an incredibly helpful resource on how to take photography beyond your point and shoot camera. I found the sections on which aperture to choose and how to meter your shots correctly especially helpful, although I know the whole thing gave me both the theory and the practical knowledge necessary to  improve my photography skills. I would recommend that any photography enthusiast buy this book. The beautiful photographs used to illustrate the points are a benefit.

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell

I found this mystery well done. I enjoy not only the Swedish setting, but also the cosmopolitan implications of the crimes Kurt Wallander must solve. In this one, a woman goes missing for apparently no reason, and Wallander quickly finds that there's a link between this Swedish murder, a former KGB agent, and an assassination attempt in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela has finally been freed from prison. This mystery deviates from Wallander's point of view--the reader knows more about what's going on than he does, so the mystery becomes more of will Wallander be able to stop a crime that's planned but hasn't happened in time than what happened to the missing woman. Overall, very enjoyable.

The Legend of the King by Gerald Morris

I must admit, I was worried how Gerald Morris would handle this book: throughout the series, he's played up the noble side of the King Arthur legends (Lancelot and Guinevere repent of their affair, for example), and while he's not afraid to portray the characters who behave idiotically as idiots (Tristram and Isolde), I wondered how the [spoiler alert] everyone dies aspect of most of the traditional legends would play out here. I must say, the book handles the story magnificently. It doesn't give a sappy, everyone-meets-as-friends-at-the-Kings-Cross-Station-to-see-their-kids-off-to-Hogwarts-20-years-later kind of ending, but it did present the facts of the ending reasonably close to a familiar version of the story while maintaining the nuances he's introduced to the various characters throughout the series (if you can believe some people don't recognize forged notes, which is fine with me). I found this book, and the series generally, immensely satisfying, and I don't doubt I'll return to this version of the stories again.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

In this book wizard Harry Dresden finds himself taking on werewolves--only you never knew there were so many types of werewolves! I found the distinctions a little hard to follow. But the murder mystery was superb--lots of twists and turns. I like Dresden--another detective who's plenty smart about solving mysteries while remaining utterly boneheaded about his personal life. I started this series after a blog of Patrick Rothfuss's recommended it, and I'll happily continue.

Warriors edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

This anthology has a variety of stories from several genres that share a common subject: warriors. I initially checked it out for the Lord John story by Diana Gabaldon and the Dunk and Egg story by George R. R. Martin. Overall, I found the quality of the anthology to be mixed at best. Some of the stories I liked, and some I found hard to get into. There was a moving one about a man who is drafted to run a "soldierboy"--a fighting machine that he's mentally linked to. The Lord John story wasn't bad (but I find I prefer the longer versions of his stories) and I liked the Dunk and Egg story (though it took me some time to get my bearings, as I haven't read the first two yet). An interesting collection, but nothing that makes me regret checking it out of the library instead of buying it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos by Michael Freeman

This book goes through what makes a pleasing composition. I found the pictures beautiful and the text helpful to show how the pictures were composed. This book would be very helpful for those looking to improve their composition skills. If you need more detail about the settings to use on your camera to achieve these results, you'll need to supplement this book with another.

Trespasser by Paul Doiron

In this mystery Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch finds himself drawn into a case out of his purview when a woman goes missing from the scene of a car hitting a deer. The case was excellently plotted, and I enjoy the main character, who's a detective out of a noir past--despite his ability to find solutions to others' mysteries, his own life spirals dangerously out of control. However, the surrounding characters/subplots weren't quite as well developed as the main plot. All in all, I enjoyed this mystery.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

I enjoyed reading this book. It's set in a dystopic, alternate universe full of a variety of teachers. It focuses on Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (a scientist who works on the edges of society and is trying to restore flight to a garuda who has been stripped of his wings) and his lover Lin (an artist who has just taken on a commission from a scary crime lord). I was interested in the freedom of modification of the body possible in this world. I also liked the way the plot worked--it was a mystery figuring out how the crime lord plot fit in with the scientist plot and how it all fit in with the terrors that have started turning up in the city. As a reader, I enjoyed assessing each new character's motivations. Not your mother's science fiction, but very smart and very fun.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson

This volume collects a number of essays by a wide range of authors on the history of the Royal Society and various scientific discoveries from its founding to the present day. I enjoyed this collection, although I found some of the essays much more compelling than others. Particularly noteworthy essays include the one by Margaret Atwood on Jonathan Swift and Gulliver's Travels, the one by Georgina Ferry on x-ray crystallography, and the one by Richard Fortey on collections. I'd recommend dipping into and out of this volume rather than reading straight through.

National Geographic: The Ultimate Field Guide to Photography by Bob Martin, Richard Olsenius, Robert Clark, John Healey, and Debbie Grossman

I found this guide to be a little dated in places (especially on technical specifications of digital cameras and backing up your images) and a little basic in others (the projects chapter offered some creative opportunities and lots of things that can be as easily and cheaply done through commercial services now and the first chapter felt too basic). Still, it offered good tips and ideas for taking and improving pictures--especially what to think about as far as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings are concerned. There was a short section on photoshop which was actually less dated than a lot of the other digital information. The pictures used to illustrate the book are beautiful, but some are hard to see because of the binding.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

This book, which is mainly set at the Peoria, Illinois, IRS office, reflects on attention, boredom, and how we deal with information. There's a lot on IRS tax codes and procedures, interspersed with personal sections about characters who have obsessive personalities (the character who worries himself into a sweat about sweating in public, the nice guy who puts others first and whom everyone consequentially hates). The book was completed (insofar as it has a finished form) after Wallace's death by his editor--the editor arranged the existing sections in the best possible order in his opinion--but it is not complete in any other sense of the word. Wallace's prose is crisp and evocative, and the book makes an enjoyable read.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This collection was intriguing but ultimately disappointing. Ms. Russell has a strong imagination, and I enjoyed piecing out what was going on with the characters in the magical realism of the stories. But when it came down to it, I found that the stories trailed off, or lacked a satisfying conclusion. I appreciate that ambiguity is a valid artistic choice, but I don't think the ambiguity was serving these stories particularly well.

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

In this book we see Rand and Perrin begin to assert themselves. While the main cast of characters was assembled in Tear, they quickly begin to disperse again. I was particularly moved by the strength in the way Siuan Sanche, the Amyrilin Seat, faces an unexpected setback. I also liked watching the back and forth between Perrin and Faile. I feel like we're beginning to get to know some of the Forsaken as more than just bogey men. I also find myself more and more intrigued by the increasing variety and experiences of women who can channel. All in all an intriguing entry.

Monday, July 11, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

This book portrays Berlin (and Germany) during Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s through the lives of the American ambassador to Germany (William Dodd) and his daughter, Martha. I found this book fascinating--especially for the portrait it paints of Germany between the wars. At times, the storyline following the family struck me as a bit desultory, but overall, it gave a nuanced portrait. The book makes me think that what happened in Germany during that time was not inevitable, and that the various players were not as easily categorized as I might have suspected.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

This book is interested in the way we produce and understand history--a word that ambiguously stands both for what happened and how we talk about it. Trouillot contends that while history is not just constructed, it is also more complicated than a set of facts that can be revealed. He uses three case studies (the execution of Sans Souci, the disappearance of the Haitian Revolution in the historical record, and Columbus's voyage to the Americas) to make his points. His history is both interesting and provocative, and his larger argument is very compelling. Altogether his book is a very worthwhile read.

Haiti, Hegel, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss

This book contends that Hegel's ideas about the relationship between masters and slaves is not rooted in ancient philosophy, but in his own observations of the unfolding Haitian Revolution. Buck-Morss is interested in the connections between freemasonry and the Haitian Revolution as well. I found her arguments fairly convincing, especially in lining up Hegel's reading and newspaper coverage of the Haitian Revolution.

Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown

This book recreates the complicated story of Arthur Mervyn, a young man from the country who comes to Philadelphia and immediately finds himself embroiled in its corruption--first commercial and then physical. I am particularly interested in the ways that Haiti simmers below the surface of this novel. While the plot is hard to follow at first, by untwisting it the reader discovers the full extent to which the slave trade supports enterprise in early America.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I enjoyed this book which introduces readers to Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the phone book in Chicago. He gets two cases, apparently unrelated at the same time, but as the pressure increases, it becomes increasingly clear that they're connected somehow. I enjoyed the murder mystery, which was well-plotted, and I found the magic world just settled in enough to accept. I'll be continuing with this series.

Death's Excellent Vacation edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner

I found this collection of stories to be uneven at best. While I really enjoyed "Two Blondes," the Sookie Stackhouse story that starts the collection, and several in the rest of the collection, other stories struck me as dull or clichéd. I'd recommend skipping around if you pick this collection up.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

This book did what travel books ought to do: it made me really want to visit Australia. While Bryson plays up the dangers of travel in Australia--venomous creatures and bad roads abound in this book, he treats the country as a fascinating place containing contradictions that make it even more exciting. Bryson's trademark humor (and sometimes less-enthused travel companions) are here in plenty as well. This book gives a good sense of the country and of Bryson's personality. Highly recommended--if you're not worried about the sudden compulsion to jet off to Australia once you're done reading.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir and part cultural history of the 1950s, immensely. There's a lot of Bryson's trademark humor, and while he doesn't shy away from the things we might critique about that decade today, his attitude is generally upbeat--you really feel his nostalgia for the era and his belief that he was growing up in the best time ever. The book gave me a new appreciation for Des Moines Iowa.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

This book was very difficult to get into because the world it presents is so different from our own, but richly rewarding in the way it played out. Avice is an immerser, someone who can travel between the manchmals of the worlds we live in normally through the immer, a substance that makes most humans sick. She uses this talent to escape Embassytown, the backwater trading post remarkable for the Hosts, a species that can only speak Language in which only the truth is possible, but not before she becomes a simile in Language. When she returns with her linguist husband, she finds tensions growing over language and the doubled Ambassadors who go between the human colonists and the hosts. This story has a fantastic plot (I don't want to say too much about the conflict, because a lot of the pleasure in the story comes from figuring it out), and not only develops characters that you'll care about, but also reflects on the nature of colonialism, communication, and power. This book was a fantastic read.

The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan

In this book the powerful magician's guild suddenly realizes the strong magical potential of a girl living in the slums--but inadvertently reinforces her prejudices against and suspicions of the guild. The story is pretty well done--there are some nice twists and betrayals. I found this book enjoyable, if nothing to make it stand out from other young-adult fantasy novels.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deceived by Paul Kemp

It took me a while to get my bearings in this book, but once I did, I enjoyed the story. It's set about a thousand years before the movies, and a group of Sith sack Coruscant, particularly the Jedi Temple, during the opening scenes. While many of the scenarios nod to familiar one (smuggler with a heart of gold, rogue Jedi), there's nuance to the bad guys--Darth Malgus has a Twilek lover who's a liability to him because she's not human, and he's really bad at playing politics. All in all, this book is an enjoyable foray into fresh ground in the Star Wars universe. I can't speak to the game tie-in aspects of the book.

Bill Bryson's African Diary by Bill Bryson

Taking this book for what it is, that is, a slim volume designed to promote CARE, a charity that works throughout Africa, you will find that Bryson has written an entertaining, if too brief portrait of his trip to Africa. There's some of his humor, and a keen eye for observation, and a refreshing frankness about the project. Don't expect one of this full-length travel volumes, and you won't be disappointed.

Yoda: Dark Rendezvous by Sean Stewart

In this book Yoda receives a message from his former pupil, Count Dooku, and secretly heads off to meet him in the company of two Jedi and their Padawans. The Padawans were the most interesting characters in the book: both Yoda's and Dooku's actions are circumscribed by what will happen to them in the movies. The plot didn't seem as fulfilling or complicated as the novels set after the movies, but the book was entertaining.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I enjoyed this book which meandered loosely around the relationship between a music producer, Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. The book does not have a linear chronology, so the reader has to work at piecing together the stories (which none of the characters ever fully know either). One of the chapters is in the form of Powerpoint slides, a move which works, but may feel dated in ten years. The prose was beautiful, and the story was intriguing. Egan has Proustian ambitions (the epigram is from In Search of Lost Time), and she does a beautiful job reflecting on how we are changed by the passage of time.

Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon

This book contains a collection of three novellas: Lord John and the Hellfire Club, Lord John and the Succubus, and Lord John and the Haunted Soldier. Of the three, I enjoyed Lord John and the Succubus the best. While they all have an element of mystery, it's in the historical detail where they really shine. I think the succubus (which has a real-world explanation) was the most-cleverly plotted, and it has the best look at Lord John's character.

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon

In this book Lord John Grey investigates the death of his father (which happened a long time ago), looking to clear his father of charges that he had been a Jacobite sympathizer and traitor. His mother remarries, and although he gains a stepbrother who at first glance appears to be in perfect sympathy with him, he learns exactly how far he can trust his family. Again, I found the historical detail to be much more compelling than the mystery plot.

Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon

This book features Lord John Grey, a minor character in Gabaldon's Outlander series, faced with two dilemmas that initially seem unrelated: he discovers the man who is engaged to his cousin has a venereal disease and he's asked to investigate the murder of a soldier who may be a spy for the French. As Lord John investigates and ponders what to do, it becomes clear that the mysteries are linked. This book is better at the historical fiction side of things than the mystery side of things.

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

While this mystery starts with the discovery of two dead men in a fishing boat, it quickly becomes clear that its scope extends beyond Sweden's borders to Latvia, which is growing restive after having been a part of the Soviet Union since the end of World War II. When Inspector Wallander travels to Riga to investigate the death of a colleague he finds himself drawn beyond the official explanation in a land where he can trust no one and can't even speak the language. I really enjoyed this mystery--which was fully of twists till the very end.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This book offers a stunning history of cancer--the ways we talk about it, the ways we treat it, the ways we cope with it, and the ways we understand it. The story jumps around a little (from one cancer to another, from one era to another), but overall it creates a compelling portrait that also includes a fair amount about the history of medicine (for example, the development of anesthesiology and the discovery of germs), the history of patient advocacy (changes brought onto the drug trial scene by the AIDS epidemic), the science of cancer (which has grown more nuanced since I was in high-school biology), and several literary references. Several patients' stories anchor the book in the human experience. I really enjoyed this book.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Darth Maul: Saboteur by James Luceno

This book chronicles Darth Maul's first solo operation: the infiltration of a mining planet that provides the ore necessary to manufacture transparisteel. The story was simple (good for novella length), but it was weird to be reading a story with a Sith apprentice as the hero--the more so because there didn't seem to be a lot of interest in character development.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

I enjoyed this book which is written in smooth and lucid prose. It tells the stories of nineteenth century American expatriates in Paris. The book focuses on Americans who traveled abroad to study and practice art, literature, and medicine. There's a fair amount of French (and Parisian) history and of the biography of these men (including Samuel Morse, James Fenimore Cooper, Elihu Washburne, Mary Cassatt, Charles Sumner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Singer Sargeant, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson). I particularly enjoyed reading of Washburne (the American ambassador) and his heroics during the siege of Paris. I couldn't quite decide if I liked the logic that ties everything together: American expatriates in Paris; I'm not sure if I quite think it holds everything together. Still, there's a lot of good history in this book.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

This book is by turns enchanting and frustrating. I enjoyed the academic hunt for the book (although it ended up feeling like a bit of a red herring or a wild goose chase, because it's one of the major plot points left unsettled for the next two books in the trilogy). The vampire love story was somewhat disappointingly cliché--an incredibly hot vampire with questionable motives just has to take the female lead out a few times and she's entirely head-over-heels in love with him. I really liked that she has her own powers (with a bit of mystery), but at times she struck me as too passive. Although at times the book felt like an adult Twilight, I am intrigued by the series enough to keep reading.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Conviction by Aaron Allston

This book brings both Natasi Daala's reign as Chief of State and Tahiri Veila's trial to their closes. Luke, Ben, and Vestara track Abeloth to a strange planet with an insidious kind of insect/parasite and a twisted relation to the force that you may remember from Planet of Twilight. There's some pretty good MacGyver-type solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which on the one hand marks most Star Wars fiction, but on the other, it's much more fun to read about characters who aren't entirely in control. I'm particularly interested to see what happens to Tahiri, Ben, and Vestara after this outing.

A Forest Apart by Troy Denning

In this novella Malla and Lumpy's visit to Coruscant is marked with adventure when Lumpy's taken hostage by a thief in Princess Leia's chambers. The plot allows Chewbacca to work out some of his feelings about being an absentee parent (all those times we see Chewie gallivanting around the galaxy with Han and Leia--just think of the wife and child he's left back home on Kashyyk!). This story is a bit of light reading--entertaining, but nothing that will make the other Star Wars novels unclear.

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I enjoyed this book which imagines the story of the first Wampanoag graduate of Harvard (Caleb) from the perspective of a minister's daughter (Bethia) who befriends him. The figure of Caleb is historical, but Brooks admits in a note that she has imagined his character. I particularly liked the book's attention to religion and the role of religion in the early settlement of New England, and the book's interest in education: especially in who gets it and in under what conditions. Finally, the book paid a lot of fruitful attention to what a cross-cultural friendship might look like. Another satisfying read from this author.