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.