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.