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.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Squire's Quest by Gerald Morris

In this book our attention returns to Gawain's squire, Terence, who has aged, but is still pretty sharp. He's worried because he hasn't heard from his family at Avalon for quite some time. Furthermore, a young man called Mordred has turned up at court, and while he impresses almost everyone, a few (including Terence and Kai) remain skeptical. There's a long bit with the Emperor of the Roman Empire (in Constantinople) and a Romeo and Juliet type plot, too. Overall, I liked this book; it seems to be shoring things up as they draw toward a conclusion.

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

I particularly enjoyed how this book brought all its characters together for the climax in Tear. As the story wends its way on, I find myself wanting most to know about the back history of the world. Why is there a taint on saidin (the male half of the One Power)? Can this taint be cured? I enjoyed watching Nynaeve, Elayne, and Egwene team up to hunt the Black Ajah.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

This book unfurls its story by moving backwards in time. While I enjoyed the portrayal of London during the Blitz, and while I found it intriguing to tease out the dense web of inter-relationships between the characters, I wasn't quite sure what arranging the book backwards added to the telling of the story (except perhaps as a bit of bragging--look how clever I am!--on the author's part).

The Song is You by Arthur Phillips

This book takes us into the musical world of Julian Donahue, who lives through his iPod. We see the crossed-signals he gets and gives as he becomes increasingly obsessed with a young, Irish singer whose music is all the rage. There's a sort of rough humor to this book. I enjoyed piecing it out, and I liked the story, but this book is not on the same level as The Egyptologist or The Tragedy of Arthur.