Sunday, December 30, 2012

Poster Art of the Disney Parks by Daniel Handke and Vanessa Hunt

I really enjoyed this book, which is mostly various posters designed for Disney theme parks since 1955. The vast majority of the posters are for Magic Kingdom-style parks (a few from Epcot and DHS sneak in)--the chapters are by MK land and then Disney's California Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea. There was a fair amount of information on the parks, the poster design process, and the printing techniques. I learned a lot--but the book made me eager to return to a Disney theme park!

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

This book is presented as a story written by Ned Kelly (the famous Australian outlaw, whose last stand was also made into a short story in Armored) for his unknown, infant daughter, telling the story of his life and how he came to be an outlaw. I think I enjoyed this book so much because Carey gives Kelly such a distinctive voice--it's full of quirks and I found it to be very believable. Even though Kelly is practically illiterate, this book presents his desire, above all else, as only to be heard, as if to be heard will justify all his wrong-doings, murders, and robberies. And in this book, it might at that.

Rites of Passage by William Golding

This book, presented as the journal of an aristocratic younger son, on his way to Australia, written for his patron, an English lord, tells the story of the death of the parson on board the ship--a death that's written off by the captain as a fever, but whose more sinister roots are preserved in this journal. I was particularly intrigued by the unreliability and the moral ambiguity of the narrator, who obviously thinks much better of himself than the reader will and who is initially unable to recognize his own role and culpability in the story. Winner of the 1980 Booker Prize.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

I found this book a little hard to pick up--but I suspect it would be much easier had I read the previous book, The Passage, more recently. There's a lot of shifting in time in this book: one set of stories shows the actions of a devastated few immediately after the virals escaped--a pregnant doctor so traumatized by the attack she sees that she loses her mind, a lone wolf's escape from the penthouse apartment he'd holed up in, a group's response to the camps the US government set up to control the flood of refugees from infected areas--and the other set of stories is set about one hundred years later, as Amy and a variety of characters from the first book, attempt to destroy the 11 remaining, original virals. Once I figured out what was going on, I enjoyed this book, which was well plotted and well written.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This book focuses on the friendship between two families whose lives are on the brink of change: the husbands run a record business about to go under to the threat of a corporate store planned just a few blocks away, the wives' midwifery practice is under siege when a home birth goes wrong, a baby is about to be born (just as the father's illegitimate son reappears), and a teenage boy falls in love for the first time. Despite all these events, the book is about its vividly-drawn characters. I found this book easy and enjoyable to read (as opposed to, say, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which took me years).

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

This book is about a middle-aged romance writer who's sent away to a small hotel in Switzerland by her friends for her own good (after she jilts her boring fiancé in favor of the married man with whom she's been having an affair). As she settles into life at the hotel, she reexamines her choices--in friendships, in romances, and in career, and is ultimately able to see past the temptations of comfort. I enjoyed this book but wasn't overwhelmed by it. Winner of the 1995 Booker Prize.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I really enjoyed this book, which is perhaps best described as creative non-fiction in the style of Tony Horwitz or Bill Bryson. It's about the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley--but it's also about the author's obsession with these assassinations and her travels to places relevant to them. Vowell has a vibrant personality with strong opinions she doesn't try to hide--which makes reading interesting, if, for example, you're not on the far left or of the opinion that Baltimore is a dangerous city you really wouldn't want to visit (except for the fact that John Wilkes Booth is buried there). The book also was a little uneven (the sections get progressively shorter, so there's more about Lincoln than Garfield, and more about Garfield than McKinley, and then a really short coda about Robert Todd Lincoln, who was on the scene at all three assassinations), but what I really felt was missing was an explanation: why stop with these three? While other assassinations were mentioned (John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X) it was only in passing--and if the book's about presidential assassinations, why rule out Kennedy? Obviously Kennedy's a big can of worms (and conspiracy theories)--but take a moment to say that! Overall, though, I found this book incredibly entertaining and informative: it's full neat facts and coincidences and it explores a potentially-overlooked corner of the American psyche.

Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre

This book is a send-up of US media culture. In the wake of a school shooting, the shooter's best friend--and the book's narrator and protagonist--is suspected of being involved with the plot. As the aftermath unfolds, however, we see the incompetent police, news media, and legal system, unfairly target Vernon Little. Although many descriptions of the book describe it as humorous, I was more horrified than amused. Winner of the 2003 Booker Prize.

Wolfsbane and Mistletoe edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner

This collection is united by the idea of werewolves and Christmas. The number of stories that started with someone spending the holidays alone for whatever reason got old really quick (even the Sookie story starts that way--a story, I might add, that also appears in the collection of Sookie stories). There were two that focused on Santa Claus that I thought were well-done and interesting: in one, a werewolf eats Rudolph and gets put in his place and in another, a couple of vampires discover that Santa is actually a vampire. I enjoyed the Kitty story by Carrie Vaughn.

A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan

This novel explores Horace Cross's struggle to find his place in a small, tightly-knit, religious town in North Carolina while accepting his identity; he attempts to reconcile his family's expectations and the religious truths with which he's been raised with his growing awareness of his homosexuality. Although Horace cannot come up with a workable solution (he turns to magic and demons, which ultimately betray him), the book uses its beautiful style and complex structure to give depth to Horace's experience and to the spirits of his family which haunt him and which have their own secrets.

Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod

This collection of nine short stories is united by its protagonists: they're all somewhat morally ambiguous protectors of the weak (by choice or by compulsion). The Jim Butcher story ("Even Hand") features John Marcone instead of Harry Dresden and was really excellent. I also loved "Even a Rabbit Will Bite" by Rachel Caine about the last dragonslayer in an age that doesn't really need her anymore. "Rookwood and Mrs. King" by Lillith Saintcrow, "Dark Lady" by P.N. Elrod, "The Beacon" by Shannon Butcher, and "A Questionable Client" by Ilona Andrews were all intriguing--I'd especially be interested in the series associated with Elrod's and Andrews's stories. Some of the other stories (apparently part of stories) were really opaque: the magical systems, worlds, and rules were weird and not clearly explained and the characters had lots of missing backstory.

Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron edited by Jonathan Strahan

I really enjoyed this collection of short stories about witches. It's worth noting that Neil Gaiman's contribution is a short poem rather than a story. I picked up the collection for the Bigfoot story by Jim Butcher (which didn't disappoint)--but I enjoyed most of the stories in the anthology (usually there's a dud or two). I particularly enjoyed both Jane Yolen's "Andersen's Witch" and Ellen Kushner's "Threefold World" which posit witchcraft as part of the reason for the creations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, respectively.

Bloodline by Ernest Gaines

This volume collects five stories by Ernest Gaines that mostly focus on the problem of becoming a man or asserting your position in a society that is designed to tear you down because of your race. Gaines's characters don't just turn to violence or protest, however: living or working within the society while calmly refusing to accept indignities or charity seems to be more of the model his characters work with.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Veríssimo

I really enjoyed this book, which plays on Poe and Borges as it creates a locked-room murder mystery at an international conference on Poe, attended by Borges. The narrator, our main source of information on the murder, gives plenty of clues--both to the red herrings that abound and to the real murder--but it's up to the reader (for the most part) to figure it out. Lots of fun with symbols and numbers, too. I suspect this book might not be as entertaining for those not so into this kind of academic guessing game, but I found it a really great and entertaining book.

The Yips by Nicola Barker

This book is a sprawling, funny comedy of manners that manages an ensemble cast very well as it exploits the wild coincidences that occur when a washed-up pro golfer returns to the area where one of his stray balls hurt a bystander when it hit her in the head. I enjoyed the improbable coincidences and the sense of humor that marked this book.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty

This book collects forty-one of Welty's stories including the collections A Curtain of Green, The Wide Net, The Golden Apples, and The Bride of Innisfallen and two previously uncollected stories. The Golden Apples hung together the best for me--they're almost all set in or around Morgana, Mississippi and feature the same characters at various points in their lives. I also enjoyed the stories that revisited historical events like the Burr plot and the Medgar Evers assassination. The stories are dense--there's a lot of meaning compressed into small actions, but the prose and the characters are both beautifully realized.

Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman

Like Once Upon a Time in the North, this book features a short story starring Lyra and Pantalaimion and a number of illustrated souvenirs relating to the story. I enjoyed the story, but once again, there's not a lot there. Something to sate hard-core fans of His Dark Materials, rather than adding substantively to the story or the universe--I don't think it would be entertaining for those unfamiliar with the main trilogy.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

While this book starts with the basics of Booth's conspiracy (originally to kidnap Lincoln) and the details of the assassinations and attempted assassinations (Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also targeted), the majority of the narrative focuses on Booth's attempt to escape after the assassination (slowed by a broken leg) and the federal hunt to find him. The book is well-researched, and while it's not a scholarly text, there are notes at the back as well as an extensive bibliography for those seeking further information. I learned a lot from this book and I enjoyed reading it as well.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan

This collection of short stories, mostly set in the fictional neighborhood of Tims Creek, North Carolina, delights with its beauty, humor, and meta-fictional commentary. The stories feature a wide range of protagonists, and gradually set out a depiction of a community with memorable characters. I particularly loved "Clarence and the Dead (and What do they tell you, Clarene? and The Dead Speak to Clarence)," "Things of This World ; or, Angels Unawares," and "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead; Being the Annotated Oral History of the Former Maroon Society called Snatchit and then Tearshirt and later the Town of Tims Creek, North Carolina [circa 1854-1985]." The stories show the magic inherent in everyday life and satirize academic attempts to interpret or explain the community.

Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

I think this book is probably aimed at a much younger audience--and while it may work for that audience, it's less entertaining for adults to read. Its young protagonist, who has deliberately apprenticed himself to the worst chaperone to give himself more freedom to follow through on his own (still somewhat mysterious) plot, realizes that the mystery he is solving is hardly the mystery he thought it was. There's lots of humor, many ridiculous adults, and a spattering of difficult words with definitions worked in, so many children will enjoy this book. I didn't find it as well done as the author's previous series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

This book tells the story of the first meeting between the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby and the armored bear Iorek Byrnison. They find themselves on the same side of a fight against an oil magnate in Novy Odense. This book illustrates just how much there is to love about both of these characters, and has a good measure of action and adventure thrown in to. I'd recommend it to people familiar with the main His Dark Materials trilogy--it probably wouldn't be the best place to start, though.

NW by Zadie Smith

I suspect I missed some of the formal playfulness of this novel because I listened to the audiobook version (which had two excellent narrators). The story is as much about life in northwest London generally as it is about the three protagonists: Leah Hanwell, her childhood friend Natalie (then known as Keisha), and Felix Cooper, whose presence in the book both demonstrates how tightly-knit the community is and how wide the gulfs between its people are. While the end of the book culminates in an engaging and satisfying plot, the story meanders on its way there--it's as much about exploring the characters and their relationships, their aspirations and their limitations as it is about telling a specific story. I found the book beautiful and lyric.

Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society by Lauren Goodlad

This book argues that many of the contradictions on topics such as social welfare, poverty, and the government's ideal role in society inherent in Victorian viewpoints come from the fact that "Victorian Britain was a liberal society"--and that this liberalism cut in two ways to both promote freedom and to insist on state aid as a means of achieving social health (vii). While Goodlad sees a Foucauldian perspective as useful in untangling the different strains of thought in Victorian Society, she finds later Foucault more useful than the genealogical approach of Discipline and Punish. Many of Goodlad's readings focus on pastorship--that is, someone (usually middle class) guiding the poor to better character and better living. She reads Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend), Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope, George Gissing, and H.G. Wells among others. These readings arrive in conjunction with a careful social history: Goodlad does a nice job of showing the relationship between the literature, its authors' opinions, and the culture in which it was produced. I found her reading of the educational system in Our Mutual Friend particularly helpful. While this book is out of my field (and out of my usual mode of theoretical approach), I found its argument to be cogent and reasonably well supported.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This book still suffers from some of the problems that plague earlier books in the series: clunky Southern accents, fake-sounding Latin, a magic system that is difficult to parse, and (although this might be new I can't remember) bad poetry supposedly written by one of the protagonists. However, I thought the plot worked really well--it had a nice shape and I finally understood what was at stake in the Caster world. I wish we had seen more of the power structure and understood more of what goes on in the Far Keep earlier. I found starting with Ethan in a between-place after death refreshing, and I liked that the story forced its characters to make sacrifices and suffer the consequences of their choices. I think I would have liked this series better if I could have read the books one right after the other instead of each as they were being published, so the fact that they're all out now should be a boon for future readers.

Finale by Becca Fitzpatrick

This book more or less allowed Nora to grow up and start taking charge of her own life--although a lot of it seems improbable. For example, she's supposedly broken up with Patch--and in reality trying to hide their relationship from the Nephilim--and yet, every other scene she's hanging out at his apartment. The pacing also felt off: the story developed slowly in the beginning (lots of training sessions) and then when things started happening they just flew by in the last few chapters. Finally, I thought the devilcraft part of the plot was underplayed: supposedly Nora's addicted to the stuff, and yet, once she finally takes the antidote, she suffers no ill effects. And maybe that leads into my main criticism of the series as a whole: while using varieties of angels as immortal creatures feels original (more so than vampires, for example), the god for whom these angels are supposedly working (as well as the devil himself) seems conspicuously absent. Even that might be alright, but it's not explored or interesting in these books. They do get better as they develop, but I'm not sure that the series as a whole stands out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This book is a quirky novel about a family under pressure and on holiday. The stresses on the family's relationships become clear when they find a woman floating in the pool of the home they've rented. She's invited to stay (no room at the inn, as it turns out) and her presence highlights the unhappiness of the rest of the family. The whole book has a surrealistic, dreamlike quality--the point is as much the objects and other descriptions as the plot. Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker prize.

Death of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet

This book has an interesting premise--the murder of the writer of cozy-style murder mysteries--and may even be attempting to comment or send up the genre, but it fails to entertain. The flatness of the characters and the byzantine plot may be part of the sendup, but they also turned me off the story. The writing was not an enjoyable style--it felt workmanlike in some places and overwritten in others. The main detective had no interest for me. Even though there are other books by this author, I won't be seeking them out.

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

This book reminds me a lot of a certain kind of witty historical fiction--the kind of thing you might read in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, for instance. It's the story of Roberto, a young nobleman who gets caught up in Parisian politics and sent to spy on developing science (here, the goal is to calculate longitude), but ends up shipwrecked on a deserted (or maybe not quite deserted) ship. The book is highly meta-fictional: the narrator is coy about how he came into possession of Roberto's papers, although fairly upfront about how much he makes up or supposes along the way. The book is a lot of fun if you're into seventeenth century scientific theories, early novels (this story can't help but remind me of Robinson Crusoe), or meta-fiction generally.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

This volume gathers all of Flannery O'Connor's published short stories. They are nothing short of brilliant. Every time I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," I see new details to admire and enhance my reading of the story. I think one of the reasons I admire these stories so much, is that O'Connor is so good at getting inside a person's head and exploding all his or her prejudices, bigotries, and limitations for the reader. It's not like she has a great deal of sympathy for these characters: she really doesn't hold back on her criticism, but on the other hand, she knows them so well that you have to think that she must like some part of them at least a little bit. Really magnificent: these stories are the work of a master of the form and the human condition.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

This book focuses on the return home of Alun and Rhiannon Weaver. He's a writer who's made his name as one of his generation's great Welsh writers, even though most of his career has been spent in London. When he comes home, decades-old relationships, friendships, and betrayals are reevaluated as Amis skewers everyone with a dark humor. I enjoyed this book, though I have the strong suspicion that I don't find Kingsley Amis as funny as Kingsley Amis finds Kingsley Amis. 1986 Booker Prize winner.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

This book is a bildungsroman of sorts of Nick Guest, a young gay man who spends the 1980s living in London at the wealthy, conservative, and political active family of a college friend of his. The book is a comedy of manners that exposes the emptiness not only of Nick's life but also of his friends and the people in his social milieu. As personal and political disaster close in on Nick and his household, he's left with the memory of the various lines of beauty (of someone's body, architectural, or even lines of cocaine) that he's experienced, but not much hope for the future. I found this book to be an extremely compelling read: the plot moves forward organically and the prose is beautifully styled. Winner of the 2004 Booker Prize.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

This book deals with the challenges of living in a postmodern, movie-going world, where we're confronted with simulacra (for Binx Bolling, the protagonist, surroundings are certified by the movies he sees, instead of the other way around), where long-held truths and narratives of historical progress are meaningless, replaced by the experience of repetition--seeing the same thing after a period of time has passed, and where our identities are constructed by mass culture (in Binx's terminology: rotation). There's no easy answer here, as Binx enters on a search to transcend the everydayness (a search prompted by his wartime experiences). But the book does suggest that the South has something to teach the nation: while the 1960s may have brought this cultural dissatisfaction to the forefront, Southerners have seen these problems before: they were defeated in the Civil War--and even more importantly--certain Southern ideas about racial hierarchy and white supremacy had already been exposed as false: so white Southerners have already had to face the loss of a sense of absolute truth. A really wonderful book.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I didn't think the secrets in this novel were commensurate with the plot's concealment of them: the book spends a lot of time with an actress trying to uncover her mother's secret past from World War II--while she could have just asked her mother (who was ill, but able to talk, and as it turns out, finally willing to do so!). I thought the story and the mystery were intriguing--and I loved the historical aspects of the story--but the present-day frame just didn't excite or convince me.

Bad Little Falls by Paul Doiron

I enjoyed the plot of this mystery, but I found the narrator/protagonist extremely frustrating. I understand why the flawed, noirish detective exists, but you have to have sympathy with the detective on some level, and in this book, I really found Mike's stupid behavior (in relation to how he related to one of the accused criminal's family members) frustrating. Not only should he know better, but he was mucking up the potential for good police work. The insights he brought to the cases as a detective weren't things that would cancel out such bad behavior.

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

This book gives readers a peek at Thursday Next as an aging detective. The timeline has jumped forward (it's now something near the current time) and Spec Ops is reforming. Unfortunately Thursday is not tapped as the director of the literary detectives. The book is both deftly plotted and wickedly funny--things that seem crazy at first turn out to be essential parts of the story--and to fit in quite well. I love the way that the disbanding of the Chronoguard is handled, and the suggestions about the journey into Dark Reading Matter (all the books and ideas that have been destroyed or disappeared). This series just keeps getting better.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

I enjoyed this book. It's set in an unnamed, Slavic country still dealing with a long history of war, and it focuses on the narrator's relationship with her grandfather, who is the linchpin in a number of stories about his life. Although the stories felt scattered at first, they came together in a really moving way. They rely heavily on a magically real aesthetic, and the relationship between humans and animals. They also have a strong folksy feel--both in the setting and in the moral-like tone of several of the stories. Overall, a highly enjoyable book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

This book continues the story of Yunior (protagonist of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). In a series of short stories, we see various instances of Yunior in love. This love is not all the same--some of it is familial love (for his mother, for his brother) and some of it is romantic--although Yunior can't ever seem to treat the women he loves with respect or honesty. The collection comes together slowly, because the stories are not in chronological order. The first and the last story--both dealing with Yunior coping with a girlfriend (in one case, a fiancée) breaking up with him after she discovers he's been cheating--were particularly moving, as was "The Pura Principle" which told about Yunior's brother Rafa and his brief marriage. A brief, but moving, collection.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty

In this autobiography Eudora Welty writes, obliquely about her growth as a writer. She gives a lot of background--both about her childhood and her family, and writes about what it was like to grow up in the South with parents who were not Southerners. This book was an enjoyable read; it felt personal but not crafted or calculated to evoke a particular literary response.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

This autobiography chronicles Richard Wright's development as a writer--it starts in early childhood, when his only way of shaping and constructing his environment is through action and he vents his frustration and boredom by playing with fire (and setting the family home ablaze). Despite his frustration with his family life and with race relations in the South, and a very haphazard education (he only completes the ninth grade, and most years he only attends part of his classes), he discovers that writing and books offer him a way out of the tension he feels living as an African American man in the U.S. South. In the second half of the book, he moves to Chicago and becomes involved with the Communist Party. The book chronicles both the hope (for racial unity) and disillusion he feels as a result of his involvement with the Party. The story Wright tells is at times moving, and at other times horrific (for example, he lynches a kitten)--and this horror is necessary to his story. Wright's careful attention to the power of language--both at its most lyrical (he uses anaphora to show his childhood self confronting and moving beyond barriers to perception) and most violent (the power of words to threaten and cause violence) make this book essential for any writer, beyond its sociological importance.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

This book introduces the Roman and Greek counterpart camps to each other, with disastrous effect! The heroes of the last two books (Percy, Frank, Hazel, Jason, Piper, Leo, and Annabeth for good measure) barely escape the Roman camp with their lives on the Argo II and set off for Rome. I loved watching Percy and Jason deal with the challenge of sharing leadership--both are so used to being in charge that their close proximity made for some awkward situations. Riordan's humor and wit continue to shine through in this book. It ends on a cliffhanger, so I'm anxious for the next book to come out (should be House of Hades next fall). I think that these series (this one, the earlier Percy Jackson series, and the Egyptian mythology series) are not only great introductions to mythology, but also have (without being preachy or moralistic) a really great message: the things that make you different may actually be your greatest strengths.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sea by John Banville

In this book Max Morden confronts his memories of the past as he moves to the village where he summered as a child after his wife's death. The tone is elegaic, but as Max reveals more and more of his memories, we quickly discover that his childhood was not all that it seems. Max must confront questions of responsibility for long-past tragedies as he struggles to live through his latest loss. Winner of the 2005 Booker prize.

The Complete Stories by Zora Neale Hurston

This collection of stories spans a wide range of time (from Hurston's early 30s to just before her death) and includes all her published short fiction and a number of unpublished stories as well (including one, "A Woman in Gaul" which was almost burned after Hurston's death). It also covers a wide range of subjects and genres: some stories draw heavily on the Southern, African-American folklore that Hurston collected professionally, some are set in Harlem, some are fantastical--bordering on magical realism, and some are non-fictional, anthropological pieces. One of the themes that carries throughout the stories is the question of understanding (and language's role in that understanding)--can we really understand each other? how can we use language (or laughter) to both reveal and hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the world? The figure of John (the trickster who came from Africa and outwits Massa despite being enslaved) is key to many of the stories. This collection contains some real gems and demonstrates the range and skill of Hurston's career.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This book is not Harry Potter. Rowling's skill at managing a large cast of characters and connecting widely diverging elements of the plot is still present, and she presents some scenes really well, with dark humor coming through. Whether recounting the disappointments of a dinner party or a mid-life infatuation with the lead singer of a boy band, she seems especially sharp on both life's little disappointments and the struggle of putting up a good face in spite of them. The story's sharply plotted and entertaining--Rowling takes the occasion of the sudden death of a parish councilor in the small town of Pagford to air the town's hypocrisy and deep-seated divisions. The novel's point-of-view jumps rapidly from character to character, and the many connections between characters from all walks of life (and between the people who live in Pagford village proper and the Fields, a low-income housing development which many Pagfordians are trying to annex to the neighboring town of Yarvil) belie the idea that the Fields are not properly part of Pagford. Rowling also investigates the motivations of charity and social work (many characters who are professionally involved with helping the poor ignore huge problems within their own families). The book defiantly sets itself apart from the Harry Potter series with plenty of drug use, sex, violence, and rough language. This roughness does not, in and of itself, make the book a bad book (although it does make it inappropriate for many of Rowling's younger readers). Still, my biggest disappointment with this book is that it has lost the magic that imbued the Harry Potter books. I'm not talking about actual magic here, obviously, but the magic of a story with epic scope--even if the Harry Potter books didn't always live up to their potential, they started with the idea that we can be our best selves; The Casual Vacancy proposes that, despite our best intentions, we rarely escape our worst selves.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

This book is beautifully written; it requires the reader to relax into the narrative--looking for immediate answers and immediate clarity as to how everything fits in only frustrated me. I really enjoyed following the development of the characters and the sense of place (mostly Bombay in the 1970s, with a diversion into China)--the plot was secondary to me. Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

In this book Chet and Bernie's easy, well-paying job of keeping an eye on a wild movie star suddenly gets more pressing and difficult when they start finding bodies in the wake of his handlers and their investigation. At the same time their personal life gets much more difficult as Bernie and Suzie begin to navigate a long-distance relationship and Leda (Bernie's ex-wife) is star struck. The story--which involves delving into the movie star's past and solving a cold case which involves city government corruption--is good, and, as usual, Quinn's characterization of Chet shines. An entertaining addition to the series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

American Photographs by Walker Evans

This volume reproduces the exhibit catalogue for Walker Evans's 1938 one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, including a descriptive essay by Lincoln Kirstein. The photographs are gorgeous and really display a lovely variety of American life and culture, from rural to urban (some of the pictures are repeated in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). The photographs are magnificent and the collection is well-worth looking into for anyone interested in American history or American photography.

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter

These stories are like icebergs: they're deeper than they first appear on the surface. For example, "Old Mortality" seems like a bildungsroman about Miranda growing up, but as we look deeper at the stories she's told, we see the destructive way the family has used romance and fiction to replace history and lived experience: stories about Aunt Amy (a tragic belle figure who died young) crowd out memories of the Civil War. I also really enjoyed "Noon Wine"--when the mysterious hired hand's past catches up with him, Mr. Thompson realizes both the extent to which he can be moved to act and the extent to which his motivations may be mistrusted by his community. Many of the stories feature great character development--a strong collection.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth

This book is easily the best so far in the President's Vampire series. Although the name of the villain (the Boogeyman) is laughable, his murders are not. At times the descriptions in the book are over the top, but the story was well-plotted and kept me guessing at every turn (especially the last, which sets up a great starting point for the next volume in the series). I thought the campaign trail was a great place to set the series of murders and the book balanced introducing a new villain with the return of old foes nicely. I listened to the audiobook version of this title, and the narrator did a nice job with different voices for the characters.

The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver

What this book lacks in originality, it makes up for in heart. The story of a child protagonist traveling to a secret, underground world filled with fantastical creatures is nothing new (see, for example, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Un Lun Dun, and Neverwhere), but Oliver has populated her world with memorable creatures (for example, the Spindlers themselves--soul-stealing creatures that seem like spiders) and does a beautiful job capturing the anxieties and fears of childhood (do my parents care? why is my little brother such a bother? does my beloved babysitter who went away to college still remember me?). This book would be a delight to read out loud to small children.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

This book is about the improbable romance between the son of a dissenting minister and an Australian heiress who invests in a glass factory. Oscar Hopkins believes in gambling of a certain type--but won't allow himself to profit from it--at a very young age. Indeed, he uses a game of chance to determine that his father is incorrect on certain religious tenets and therefore becomes an Anglican minister. Lucinda Leplastrier is also a gambler of a sort--she invests half of her inheritance in a glass factory despite no background in the industry. They meet while traveling from England to Australia, and together concoct a plan to construct a glass church in the heart of the Outback. I really enjoyed this book--I thought the character development was superb--both Oscar and Lucinda are quirky, flawed individuals. Despite the improbabilities of the plot, Carey has constructed two characters who feel human. Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

This book tells the intertwining stories of Sai, an orphan, who lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and Biju, the son of their cook, who is trying to make it as an illegal immigrant in the restaurants of New York City. There are beautiful scenes here, and the book is very attentive to the problems of colonialism, but the plot was a little meandering for my tastes--it took a long time for me to figure out quite where it was going. Winner of the Booker Prize, 2006.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

This book portrays the extreme poverty of the Lester family in a story that might be compared to a train wreck: you know you shouldn't be looking (and in this case laughing), but you can't look away either. The book relies neither on sentimentality nor on a proletarian call to action, but rather by turning the readers' reactions back on them: instead of a moral or a plan, Caldwell interrogates why we respond to this family with humor, contempt, and perhaps pity. The failure of the land to produce crops is equated with the family's inability to reproduce within social norms (the Lesters have had seventeen children, but only two still live at home, for example, and the ones who have left want nothing to do with the family). While Jeeter Lester (the head of the family) instinctively knows that his fate is tied to the land and that he wants no part of industrialization (symbolized by the possibility of a mill job in Augusta), the family is completely unable to cope with modernity: they treat their new car as if it were almost human--and in so doing manage to almost destroy it in a few short days. Finally, this book is about rural poverty in the South in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales--certainly it's a relevant topic, but Tobacco Road raises bigger and more pressing questions: What does it mean to be human? and What are the costs of living in a society that allows some of its members to become so abject?

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

This book spoofs the publishing industry as Ankh-Morpork gets its first newspaper just as the Watch uncovers a plot to unseat the Patrician. This book was definitely one of the more humorous and well-conceived entries in the Discworld series: it works! The plot hangs clearly together and I found the humor especially well done (Gaspode, the talking dog, is one of the newspaper's first sources, but he speaks to the newspaper anonymously as Deep Bone, for example).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Israel Potter by Herman Melville

This book is Melville's reworking of the historical story of Israel Potter, a private at the battle of Bunker Hill who quickly finds himself taken away from his new country and, after a series of intrigues, spends most of his life in poverty in London. This text is marked by Melville's interest in animal metaphors, the extreme gothic tropes (Potter is buried alive in a hidden room in an English house, for instance), and the story's lack of reward for a life well lived--even as Potter experiences one disappointment after another, things keep getting worse. It was initially published serially, which accounts for its episodic nature.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This book is a beautiful meditation on art, memory, and forgiveness after great inhumanity. Judge Teoh, the narrator, returns to Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists, where she served an apprenticeship many years ago. As she sets down the paths her life has traveled, and attempts to bring the garden--the only Japanese garden in Malaysia--back to order, some of the mysteries of the past are unraveled and she is forced to reassess the choices she's made. I really enjoyed reading this book--it's beautiful and mysterious, and it really makes me appreciate how little of the history of Southeast Asia I know.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This book is about the Fall of the House of Compson, as told through the points of view of its last three sons--Benjy, who is mentally retarded, Quentin, who is suicidally insane, and Jason, who is morally bankrupt--and a third-person, omniscient narrator. Although the majority of the narration technically happens during Easter weekend 1928, the story is continually haunted by its past traumas, which keep slipping in and out, along with Faulkner's cruel golf jokes. This book is a hauntingly beautiful warning about the dangers of getting caught up in the past and about the dangers of settling for a flawed modernity.

Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston

This book features a return of the Wraith Squadron with many familiar characters and some new (or almost-new) ones as well. The story has a nice balance of spying adventure with some character growth--the scars of the Yuhzohng Vong war are obviously still healing slowly. The audio was particularly nice because there were a lot of sound effects and music to go along with the reading. Basically a very nice adventure that can stand on its own.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shatterproof by Roland Smith

This book is full of red herrings as Dan, Amy, Atticus, and Jake continue their adventures in an attempt to outwit the Vespers and save their family members.While this book develops the story, it (like the others in the series) is a little short: I think the series is divided into so many short episodes because it's aimed at younger readers. These books do a great job of showing neat places around the world: they always make me want to travel.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

This book is about a supposedly sane man, Stephen Leeds, who is surrounded by multiple personalities with extraordinary skills. Leeds and his team of aspects are called in to find the inventor of a camera which can take photographs of the past. There's a little bit of adventure and a lot of speculation in this story. I enjoyed it, and I have a feeling there's more to it--or rather more to the character Leeds, who has a mysterious woman who disappeared in his past. Unless you're a big Sanderson fan or entirely opposed to e-books, I'd recommend the e-book rather than the print version: the novella size seems more reasonably priced digitally than in hard copy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

This book tells the story of David Lurie, a middle-aged literature professor who is forced to leave his University post after he has an affair with one of his students. He moves to a rural part of the country, where his daughter lives alone on a farm, but his safety and his relationship with his daughter are imperiled when the farm is attacked. None of the characters clearly held the moral high ground, and I think that this ambiguity is one of the book's strengths. I'm not sure that the book had a fantastic answer, but it posed the question of how do you live life past disappointment and things not working out the way you might have hoped very well. Booker award winner, 1999.

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris

This book presents a nostalgic version of plantation life in the slave South. Uncle Remus, a formerly enslaved man who still lives with the white family that owned him before the Civil War, tells the family's young son a series of stories about animals--Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Tarrypin and their friends. In many of these stories, although Brer Fox or Brer Bear is stronger and a natural predator, they fail to catch and eat Brer Rabbit, who is clever enough to escape their plans and to live to torment them another day. The stories preserve Georgia folklore, but the frame narrative tends to reinforce the nostalgic and misleading idea that life was better in the Old South. These stories are the basis for the Disney movie Song of the South, the first movie to combine live action film and animation--and a movie which Disney executives now refuse to sell on the basis of its racist nostalgia for the Old South. These same executives don't mind making money off the franchise however: as the popular Splash Mountain ride in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland is based on one of the Brer Rabbit stories.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cane by Jean Toomer

This book crosses all sorts of lines, both generic and social. It's a collection of short stories, dramatic pieces, and poetry that explores the conditions of culture in the United States. The first section is about life in the South and has a feminine feel; the second section is about life in the North and is masculine and sterile, and the third section is about a Northerner coming South, and has a synthesis. The book tries to rewrite our ur-myths from the rape fantasies that spurred lynching (instead of Southern white men needing to protect white womanhood, the real sin, according to the story, is hiding the root story, that of desire between a white man and a black woman), to Genesis itself (refigured in "Blood Burning Moon."). The book imagines that a Messiah figure could be replaced by an artist who might offer absolution for all the violence that marks US culture. Cane never fully gives us this healing, restorative art, however. Instead, we get the fragments. The poet can gather the fragments, but the collection implies that we need a community to assemble them into a whole. A beautiful, troubling, and ultimately moving meditation on race, culture, and the United States.

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book Tavi faces the ultimate challenge and the last battle for Alera against the Vord queen. He also must assert his rightful position as First Lord of Alera against a variety of challengers and rivals. Once again, Tavi's unusual upbringing allows him to be more resourceful and clever than his predecessors and his sense of honor and charming personality help him to earn the respect and cooperation of a wide variety of peoples. This book brought the Codex Alera to a fitting and enjoyable conclusion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

In this book PC Grant goes underground when a US Senator's son is found stabbed in the back in the Baker Street tube station. Aaronovitch does a great job developing his characters--his stories have real consequences, and these consequences play out in real ways. The landscape of the stories is also rich: you really feel like you're in London. There are a number of Lord of the Rings references, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The faceless man (the big bad introduced in the last book) is still hovering, but I think that adds to the series's appeal. If you're a fan of Harry Dresden, these books should appeal to you.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This book finds PC Grant solving the mysterious deaths of jazz musicians during or just after gigs. It took a while for me to figure out where the plot was headed--the book didn't necessarily cohere as well as the first one, but in the end it was worth it. I particularly liked the way that the story added a big bad: an ethically challenged magician who went rogue sometime after World War II and is apparently training others in his nefarious ways. I'm looking forward to seeing where this series is going.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt

These stories are told in a frame narrative: a white couple, John and Annie, move from Ohio to North Carolina in an attempt to improve her health and to make money farming. When they arrive in the South, they find their plantation is home to Uncle Julius, an African American who was born into slavery and who tells a series of stories about life before the Civil War. Although Uncle Julius may seem like an Uncle Remus figure, John quickly realizes that Julius's stories have a point: he tells the stories as a way of attempting to manipulate John and Annie. While John sees the smaller point, he lacks the emotional intelligence to see the larger ones: Julius's stories expose that although slavery is over, many of the same inequalities still persist in the South. The stories are folktales in which conjure features heavily: many have enslaved and white characters seeking redress for wrongs through magical means (metamorphoses into animals, trees, and other people are common). This conjure (which echoes the Latin for with the law) metaphorically demonstrates what slavery did legally and what Jim Crow statutes did quasi-legally: they turned people into things and established color lines which it might mean death to cross. Julius's stories invite John and the reader to transgress and cross these lines, to imagine what life is like outside of ourselves. While John has difficulty seeing this offer, much of the hope in the stories is that the reader can do what John cannot.

The Gathering by Anne Enright

This book is a study in grief and loss: after Liam Hagerty's suicide, his remaining family gathers for his wake, and his sister Veronica tries to sort out her complicated feelings for her brother, her husband, and her children as she tries to make sense of why Liam died. Long-buried family secrets come to light as Veronica teases out how the past created the present she's now living in. Elegiacally and patiently this book slowly unwraps years of family trauma. Booker prize winner, 2007.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

This book is a modern tour-de-force. Toru Okada, who has recently quit his unsatisfying office job, finds himself drawn into a series of mysteries when the family cat disappears. But this disappearance leads to more mysteries: Toru's wife leaves him, and he finds himself drawn into a story that started during World War II. To solve the mysteries, Toru must learn to take the occult seriously and face dangers in a dream world. I really enjoyed this book, which weaves its alternate realities together in a convincing and beautiful way. Most of all, I think, this book is about family and how much of who we are is determined by our circumstances and how much by our will.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

This book tells the story of Hajime, whose happy family life is disrupted when a woman he loved in childhood comes back into his life. The story is fascinating, and in some senses, only covered in its contours: there's a lot of Shimamoto's history and circumstances that's simply left unexplained. The book is far more interested in the emotional impact of her interactions with Hajime than in telling her story.

Scourge by Jeff Grubb

This book is about characters who are on the margins of the Star Wars universe--a Jedi archivist who enters field service when his former apprentice is killed, some smugglers, and a Hutt crime syndicate. I enjoyed the story, which included a fair amount of double-crossing and some action, and I liked the new characters, but it's no Zahn novel either.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America by Terence Whalen

This book investigates Poe's understanding of and relation to the interaction between capitalist market forces, political economy, and conditions of literary production in the antebellum United States. Whalen is not afraid of making a controversial argument or taking on years of scholarship: in two of his most remarkable assertions, he claims that the accounts of Poe's success at the Southern Literary Messenger are greatly exaggerated (and possibly by Poe himself) and that the controversial Paulding-Dreyton review published in the Southern Literary Messenger was actually the work of William and Mary professor Beverley Tucker, so Poe's racism was not virulent, but rather the "average racism" of the age. Indeed, Whalen contends that Poe was so interested in the potential of a national market for his work, that he worked very hard to create political neutral texts. I agreed with many of the arguments in this book, but I thought Whalen's tone was a touch aggressive and arrogant: he is the only scholar in a hundred and fifty years to make arguments like these and to look at the sources he does! There's also a very strong reading of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

In this book Samuel Vimes, commander of the Watch, is sent as Ankh-Morpork's ambassador to Uberwald where tempers are running high over the latest dwarf election and the ceremonial Scone may be missing. With the help of his sharp wife Sybil, Vimes must negotiate a diplomatic solution in a country full of vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, and Igors but noticeably short on the rule of law. I am enjoying the Watch books more and more.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

This book is a comprehensive biography of the racehorse Seabiscuit. In telling the story of the horse, Hillenbrand ranges far and wide: she covers a brief biographies of the most important people associated with him (owner, trainer, jockeys), the state of racing at that time, Seabiscuit's pedigree, and detailed accounts of the races themselves. Her writing style at times telegraphs results and mishaps before they actually happen, but it was a thorough and enjoyable account of Seabiscuit's career. I really got to know the horse and his team through this book. The narrator for the audiobook did a great job: dramatic when it was called for and otherwise clear.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

This book tells the story of the Loftis family. Although most of the story is set on the day of their daughter Peyton's funeral, the story goes much farther back to explain the family's dysfunction. In many ways, this book is a classic story of the decadence and failure of the South: it already starts in a place of dissolution (the funeral of the family's last living child) and offers little hope for a family future (all the characters are emotionally stunted). Some of the plot and style elements echo Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (like the stream of consciousness narration, suicide, nihilistic father, alcoholism). I was interested in the isolation in this story--both geographic and emotional.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to, based on its description. Harold Fry, recently retired, sets off to mail a letter to a work colleague with whom he had lost touch and who has written that she has terminal cancer. But he reaches the postbox much too quickly, and decides to keep walking. After a conversation he has when he stops for a snack, he decides to walk all the way across the island (from southeast England to western Scotland) and deliver the letter personally. During the course of his journey, the familial conflicts that have been haunting Harold slowly unfold, as does the incident that ended his coworker's employment. Although Harold's journey gets slowed up as it gains publicity, and followers, he's not interested in the others' investment in his trip. This book is finally a lyric and moving meditation about how to live after painful losses.

Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer

This book starts with a bang--and Artemis and Holly and the gang quickly realize that they'll need to act fast and use any help they can get to stop Opal Koboi's plan to kill all humans aboveground. For the most part, this book was similar to the other Artemis Fowl books: entertaining but not great. I though the ending was a huge copout, but I hesitate to say more so as not to spoil anything.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

This book is the story of Saleem Sinai, one of 1,001 so-called Midnight's Children, people born during the first hour of India's independence. Saleem grows up with the nation, and must face a variety of betrayals as he navigates his life in India and Pakistan, and as he narrates his family history before Indian independence. The magical realism works very well in this book--it adds to the beauty and power of Saleem's experiences. Between Saleem's job in the pickle factory, and his love for his sister, I could see antecedents of plot points in The God of Small Things. It's a really great story that masterfully juggles the intimate and personal with the national. Winner of the Booker Prize, 1981, and twice voted the best of the Booker winners.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Looking for Jake by China Miéville

This collection of stories covers a wide range of fantasy; there's one set in Bas-Lag (home of Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, and The Scar), there are a number set in various post-apocalyptic Londons (including The Tain, a novella about vampires and people captured in mirrors), and even an illustrated story. I really enjoyed "'Tis the Season" about a world in which Christmas is so trademarked that you have to buy permission to celebrate. The stories were all good. Once again Miéville shows off his endlessly inventive and entertaining imagination.

Survival of the Sickest: The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity by Sharon Moalem

This book explores the relationships between human disease and evolutionary advantage. For example, some people (including many of Western European descent) have a genetic disorder which causes them to retain too much iron, which then accumulates in organs such as the liver and the brain. While this disorder can lead to death if not treated (the most effective treatment is bloodletting), it probably offered a better chance of survival against the plague (because the form in which the iron is present in the bloodstream is inaccessible to bacteria). The book also looks at the relative virulence of disease in relation to forms of transmission (a cold, for example, will probably not be deadly because you spread it best if you can be walking around and interacting with others, while cholera, which often spreads through contaminated water, doesn't require its human host to be mobile). I found this book thoughtful and fascinating, and I agreed with its conclusions: rather than just trying to eliminate bacteria and viruses, we should be trying to make them evolve in ways that are helpful rather than harmful to human survival.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods

This book is part memoir of Vanessa Woods's time at Lola Ya Bonobo, a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, part account of bonobos (a species of ape closely related to humans and chimpanzees), and part recent history of the region. Woods passionately makes the case for why we should protect and study bonobos: their inherent, peaceful response to stressful situations and their tolerance for one another can help us understand human altruism and cooperation, and may help us deal with our inherent impulses towards violence (impulses that chimpanzees share). In her story Woods conveys the dangers and the triumphs of life at the sanctuary and makes a strong case for the right kind of academic research.

Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher

When Tavi and his companions arrive in Canea in this book, they discover that the Vord have all but conquered the whole land, except for one range. Meanwhile, the Vord are pressing Alera too, and it's all Gaius Sextus can do to stop them temporarily. I think that one of the advantages of this series as a whole has been its episodic nature: Tavi (and the other main characters) deal with a given problem or issue in a book, and then they often skip a few years (so we don't get a lot of filler material). But as the series draws to a close, we're not skipping so much time any more. I'm looking forward to seeing (I suspect) Tavi defeat the Vord and bring new hope to Alera.

Sup with the Devil by Barbara Hamilton

In this mystery Abigail Adams gets drawn into mysterious circumstances at Harvard which center around a document whose contents are hidden by the Arabic script used to write it, a collection of books owned by a pirate that may have fallen into the wrong hands, and that pirate's hidden treasure. It seemed to take a while for this mystery to really get going, but it all came together nicely in the end. Hamilton continues to write excellent historical fiction.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I really enjoyed reading this book, which fills out the myth of Achilles and Patroclus--starting long before Homer does, and ending just short of the Underworld. The broad strokes of the story will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Trojan War. Miller's well versed in those stories (for example, she chooses not to include the part of the story where Achilles's only vulnerability is his heel, an addition to the myth that probably developed after Homer's time), and she's fairly meticulous about the details she includes. But the heart of what makes the story work is the characters. I found her portrayal of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus moving--each helped the other become his best (and the brief portrait of Neoptolemus, who was raised by his grandmother Thetis, shows the inhuman cruelty Achilles could have obtained). If anything, what Miller gives us is a reading of Homer. It fills in some of the (what we would perceive today as) gaps in the Homeric version and provides motivations for many of the characters. Even though the story holds Odysseus at arm's length throughout the text, I couldn't help loving him even more in this portrayal (he's one of my favorites from those stories). Perhaps best of all, this book made me want to improve my Greek, so I could go back to Homer (and some of the others) and read them in the original (and fill in the gaps my own way).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

In this book King Verence of Lancre makes the mistake of inviting a family of vampires (or rather vampyres--they're trying very hard to be modern and to train themselves out of weaknesses like their aversions to holy symbols, sunlight, and garlic) to his daughter's christening. To compound the problem, a group of magpies steal Granny Weatherwax's invitation. I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the other entries in the series, but I thought it had a strong plot, I loved reading the witches (especially Granny Weatherwax), and I really liked what Pratchett did with his parody of vampires. All in all a great read.

The Theban Mysteries by Amanda Cross

Although Kate Fansler is on sabbatical in this book, she finds herself teaching at her old high school, one of New York's most exclusive schools for girls, when the leader of the senior seminar on Antigone finds herself on bedrest (unrelated to the mystery!). Kate is mystified by youth culture and finds a number of young people struggling with the Vietnam War and the draft. The mystery develops slowly (the body doesn't even appear till the second half of the book), and Fansler's much more adept at spotting the questions of group dynamics (and an elementary form of consciousness-raising) than I was.  Like the other books I've read in this series, the mystery has a certain old-fashioned feel to it, but I enjoyed it.

The Demigod Diaries by Rick Riordan

Although there's a quiz and a word search, this book mostly contains short stories: there's one starring Percy and Annabeth between the Greek and Roman series, one featuring Luke before he came to Camp Half-Blood, one starring Leo making Festus the dragon into the Argo II, and ends with one written by Rick's son Haley about what happens to a demi-god who fought for Kronos after their defeat. I enjoyed all of the stories--they are good light reading, and they helped put me in the mood for The Mark of Athena, which comes out in October. Haley's story is just as good as his dad's.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

This book, published in the UK as Rivers of London, features police constable Peter Grant, who sees a ghost on a murder investigation, just as he's about to get his first permanent assignment in the police force. Instead of being sent to a division of paper-pushers, he is apprenticed to Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who is apparently a wizard and responsible both for solving crimes with a supernatural element and serving as liaison between the police (and their interest in the Queen's Peace) and the various deities and supernatural entities (such as Father Thames and Mama Thames) who live in and around London. I thought the supernatural content was very well handled and balanced the murder mystery in a reasonable and entertaining fashion. I liked seeing the development of Grant and I loved the book's connections to London. I'm looking forward to the next entry in this series.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Play of Heresy by Margaret Frazer

In this book Joliffe begins investigating the death of a man who was supposed to meet another of the Bishop's spies to inform about the actions of Coventry Lollards. Joliffe, who has been reunited with his troop in time for the annual Coventry cycle (although he's in a different play), investigates the murder as he helps organize the play. There's a side plot about Joliffe working for a man who deserted the acting troop several years ago during some hard times, but I didn't find that part quite as compelling. The family relationships and the religious question were a little more difficult than usual for me to untangle, but I loved the historical setting--especially seeing the play cycle put on.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book is organized as a series of letters from Balram Halwai--a self-described entrepreneur--to the Premier of China. Although Balram started out life in a poor village, he eventually becomes a driver--and most of the book focuses on his relationship with Mr. Ashok, his employer. A lot of the book's value comes from Balram's astute observations and quick, if dry, wit. I really enjoyed the complexities of Balram's relationship with Mr. Ashok, especially since such a master-servant relationship feels so outdated compared to what I have experienced. This relationship really drove a lot of questions about what our humanity is worth and what can be bought and sold. Booker award winner, 2008.

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

This book tells the story of an unnamed, but intricately described, city through the eyes of several of its residents. Even the person of the narration changes from chapter to chapter. The place is all that connects each story to the next--but the city changes in the eyes of each of its beholders. I really enjoyed these stories--they are entertaining in their own rights, and cross many different genres. What links them thematically is the question of what is our humanity, what links us together as people. There's a sense of the city-dwellers' fear of what lurks at night and what lurks below the surface, and I thought that part in particular was very well handled.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blake, or the Huts of America by Martin Delany

This book tells the story of Henry Blake, who was illegally enslaved, but eventually ran away to freedom and to begin agitating slave revolt both in the United States and Cuba. The book was published serially in 1861 and 1862 in two magazines, and the last several issues have been lost, so the ending is in flux. The story moves very quickly from place to place, and highlights as much of Blake's work in fomenting revolt as it does the sentimental story of his wife being sold away from him (and his eventual, successful efforts to win her back). There's a lot of poetry that emphasizes the emotions the enslaved people feel throughout the text.

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

In this book Hannah Arendt looks at the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century as embodied by the two most prominent instances of it: Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin. Arendt traces this rise first through anti-Semitism, which began in the 19th Century, and then through imperialism to totalitarianism itself. This book is dense, comprehensive, and well argued. In addition to a lot of historical evidence, Arendt demonstrates why totalitarianism is so dangerous, and how the Nazis and Stalinist Russia used prison camps, secret police, propaganda, and conspiracy theories to dehumanize their populations.

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

This book is about a Swedish judge who solves a mass murder that the police cannot because they are unwilling to look beyond the obvious solution. There's a lot of backstory to tie things together here, which I enjoyed, although I found the ultimate motivation of the murderer not entirely convincing. I thought the dynamics of betrayal were the most interesting part of the story.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

This book centers around three editors for a vanity press in Milan. When the press decides to start publishing a series on the occult, the editors, up to their ears in conspiracy theories, decide to create their own version of the Plan, by which the Templars secretly went into hiding in the fourteenth century, and which they were supposed to use to return to power in 1944. But as the conspirators cook up the Plan, they realize that others are taking their game very seriously. Part of this book is a fun conspiracy story--it puts together an almost-plausible narrative that links the Templars with other mysterious groups through the ages (and has a ton of literary and cultural in-jokes, to book). What separates this book from something like The Da Vinci Code, though, is that the other part of the book is so moving. Belpo and Causabon, in particular, are well-developed characters, and the reader comes to understand that their manic devotion to finding the truth behind these conspiracy theories (which in the book are lined up like a house of cards) is about a lack of meaning in their day-to-day lives (which they only realize too late) rather than from any value inherent in the theories. I really enjoyed this story.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Endymion by Dan Simmons

This entry in the Hyperion Cantos jumps forward 247 years. While you don't need to be familiar with the previous books to enjoy this one, there's a lot that carries over. The plotting is excellent. We are quickly brought up to speed with changes in a universe where farcasting's no longer a possibility, and instant communications and access to data are things of the past. Raul Endymion, the local boy who seems to be learning to make good is a great new hero, and the Keats cybrid and Brawne Lamia's daughter Aenea is an enigmatic and assertive child. I loved seeing all the different worlds, the tactics of Aenea, and the consequences of the way the Catholic Church has adopted the cruciform technology. The twists near the end kept the plot interesting; I'm eager to read the final book in the series.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

King Rat by China Miéville

I really enjoyed this book--although it's noticeably an early work, you can see some of Miéville's best traits in this story. Saul Garamond returns home to a camping trip to discover that his father's been killed and that he is half rat--and heir to King Rat himself. Now he must help King Rat, Anansi (ruler of the spiders), and Loblob (leader of the birds) defeat the Piper, who's begun to take an unhealthy interest in his friends. There's a lot of creativity here, and some great politicking. A wonderful coming-of-age story.

Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell

This book is about people turning out to have mysterious pasts and to be almost unknown despite being a colleague or a family member. It's also about the long hand of history reaching out beyond expectation to address wrongs. I thought the mystery was pretty well handled--although the murderer is identified pretty quickly, there are a lot of layers of motivation and facts to untangle.

Kept by D.J. Taylor

This book models the novels of Dickens and Collins that it reads like; there are a lot of intertwining plots and characters. We also get to see early police in action (towards the end of the book). None of the main characters are entirely sympathetic, but Taylor has a good sense of the Victorian worlds. I loved the literary allusions. It covers a number of themes that play out in the period: criminality, interest in science, insanity, the role of women. It wasn't quite as good as a genuine Victorian novel, but it was a decent imitation of that kind of plot, and very well written.

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher

In this book Tavi is masquerading as Captain Rufus Scipio, and his successes against the Canim have made him more political enemies than allies. But when he discovers that some of his suspicions about his parentage (that he's the First Lord's grandson) are confirmed and that his mother has been pretending to be his Aunt Isana his entire life, he's faced with a crisis of trust. The fate of the realm depends on his ability to take up a new mantel as Princeps. I really enjoyed this book. While I liked the idea of Gaius Sextus having to do without his furies, those scenes weren't as interesting as Tavi's. These books are not the most epic high fantasy I've ever read, but the series is well-plotted and very enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hex Appeal edited by P. N. Elrod

I really enjoyed this anthology. I picked it up for the Jim Butcher story, which was excellent, but I really liked most of the other entries as well. Lots of morally ambiguous characters, lots of witches. The magic systems were all straightforward enough that I didn't have a lot of trouble getting into the worlds (sometimes a problem with anthologies) and even the parts of larger series were clear without familiarity with those series. I'll be on the lookout for other anthologies by this editor.

Armored edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology centers its stories around characters in body armor. Most of this armor is highly intelligent and can help the user make decisions, or even make decisions for the user (if for example, its occupant is harmed during battle or in the military). A few were alternative histories (for example, one was set in Australia during the nineteenth century, another was during the Spanish Civil War). I'm not as fond of the straight battle stories, but many had interesting twists (for example, a general who kept turning up when he wasn't expected, a planet of man-eating plants). I read this anthology for the new Brandon Sanderson story, which was okay, but not as good as his other work.

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

This book has another great story about Temeraire. He and Captain Laurence have been recalled to service in order to help with British difficulties in Brazil. But when the Allegiance sinks, and the remaining crew is rescued (and subsequently taken prisoner by) the French, it takes all of Temeraire's and Laurence's wits to escape and help the British. I loved seeing the South American dragons, and the cultural differences in the ways dragons were treated. I think the dragons--as Novik has imagined them--are really great characters, because they are powerful and smart but deeply different from humans. These differences make for a lot of really fruitful conflict. I can't wait for more of this lovely series.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Skios by Michael Frayn

I loved this book. It's a really funny story about mistaken identities and mysterious events at a philanthropic house party on a private Greek island. When a mischievous young Brit takes the identity of the older professor scheduled to give the keynote lecture, lots of amusing hijinks ensue. While the whole story is improbable in parts, and definitely interested in being funny, it also gives the two main characters a great chance to reevaluate their lives and why they're pursing the paths they're on. I'm so glad I came upon this book through the Booker longlist.

Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally

Even though this book relies on witness testimony and matches historical accounts I've read about the Holocaust, it bills itself as a novel. It has lots of facts, and carefully recreates some conversations, while indicating where it moves into the realm of speculation. But this book is far more powerful than a dry history. By picking the story of industrialist Oskar Schindler--a man who drank excessively and cheated on his wife, but who was also moved to risk his life and fortune to help the Jews of Cracow--and ultimately to save 1,300 of them in his factory. This story was really well told, and despite the unrelenting cruelty and terrible conditions that it depicts, also offers hope that people can rise above their surroundings to look out for each other. Booker Prize winner 1982.

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson

This book shows Alcatraz's brief tenure as the temporary monarch of Mokia, where he went to try to gain military support against an attack of Librarians. But when he meets up with his mother, he realizes that good and evil aren't quite as clear as they had already seemed. The humor still rings a little flat for me, but there's a lot of wit and a ton of literary allusions. Even though the book is advertised by Scholastic as the last in the series, Sanderson plans to write a fifth and final book at some point.

Riptide by Paul S. Kemp

In this book Jedi Knight Jaden Korr must track a ship full of rogue clones when they escape the destruction (in Crosscurrent) of a Thrawn-era cloning facility. The story was pretty exciting, although I found myself getting confused about what the Jedi knew about which Sith when. It felt really quick, but that might be partly a result of the way that stories tend to play out more slowly in the longer, 9-book series that Lucasfilm has been releasing lately.

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

This book focuses on the early years of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even as the school prepares to give young men (and at least one young woman) a technical instead of a classical education, doubters throughout the city of Boston worry that the new technologies being developed will replace jobs. Things get worse when a series of mysterious disasters that obviously required scientific expertise to pull off throw even more suspicion on the Institute. A group of seniors, lead by a charity student, and the lone female student, a freshman, work together (and under the nose of the Institute) to try to solve the mystery of the disasters before it's too late for Boston and for MIT. I enjoyed the plot--the mystery worked really well (with some nicely planted red herrings). The style was a little annoying--I don't doubt the nineteenth century slang is accurate, but it rings in an irritating way, and none of the characters sound like they're real people. Still, it's an enjoying light read.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross

In this mystery as Kate Fansler is trying to cope with the disruptions of student protests at the University last spring, she finds herself dragged into a struggle between the undergraduate college and the college for adult students--a struggle that quickly turns deadly. The book seemed a little dated in some aspects--especially in its language and the way people treat each other--but the concerns about how to govern a university still are very relevant. The book also seemed much more interested in academia and its politics than in the murder mystery itself, which was wrapped up very quickly, and more by Fansler's fiancé than by her own work.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time by Thomas Bender

This book gives a comprehensive intellectual history of New York City. Bender contends that intellectual life in New York has always been different from Europe--so if we look for European structures, we'll be disappointed. Instead, he traces three types of intellectual involvement: civil, literary, and academic. He contends none of these structures has been completely successful in developing intellectual life, and that a city that could embrace all three would be ideal. In this book, Bender thinks a lot about the relations between intellectual life and democratic society, ultimately contending that intellectual life has to be open to all and a vibrant part of city culture for the optimal situation. I found this book very diligent in providing convincing evidence to support its arguments. The three trends are very clearly defined, but the book could trace their relationships to each other a little more clearly.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ragnarök: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

In this book A.S. Byatt retells Norse mythology (especially as it pertains to Ragnarök, the Twilight (or Judgment) of the Gods) through the eyes of a child sent from her city home to the English countryside during World War II. This perspective both normalizes and makes strange aspects of the story that would have otherwise passed uncommented on stand out--although through the child's perspective everything is accepted in a way that an adult might not. I thought that this story made a powerful case for the relevance of myth in the modern age (and a slightly-less convincing (or maybe just more-disturbing) one for the Ragnarök stories in particular--warnings about beings who despite their power cannot stop themselves from destroying their world).

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

It took me longer than usual to read these books this year; I think I both got tied up in library books and busy doing other things than reading. When I did finally read them, I was most struck by the language and the structure this time around. Tolkien has a very good ear for the English language--so he was able to make his book sound like something that's come out of thousands of years of mythic history--while still using subtle differences in dialect to distinguish between the types of characters (and he has a series of invented languages from which the Lord of the Rings was supposedly translated that add a layer of complexity to his work). The structure is also very well done--things that open earlier in the story close later on (even Fredegar Bolger, who was left at Crickhollow in an attempt to foil pursuers is accounted for when the hobbits return to the Shire after destroying the Ring). I think this happens most clearly in the case of Smeágon/Gollum: his fall in Mount Doom is clearly foreshadowed by the oaths he swears on the Ring while he helps Frodo and Sam into Mordor. Despite the clear losses that everyone suffers in the story, it's really a hopeful tale: good can prevail, at least one age at a time, and we know it is good, not just because we are told so, but because it treats those who have done it evil with kindness and mercy; we can also track evil in its self-defeating hostility to all, even its so-called allies. I really love these stories--and I can't wait for the movies about The Hobbit, which start this December!

A Marked Man by Barbara Hamilton

This mystery features the sleuthing skills of Abigail Adams, who must come up with the true murderer of an arrogant Crown official when one of her husband's friends is falsely accused. Henry Knox, in love with the woman the official was trying to marry and a Son of Liberty, if he gave evidence against other traitors in return for his life, could condemn John Adams and many of his friends. The book does a good job with the historical fiction aspects of the story--and I think especially good with imagining Adams's character in the context of her time. I also liked the mystery plot, which was clever, and relied on techniques and observations available in 18th century life. While there were some clear clues pointing towards the solution, it may be one of those mysteries where the answer is a bit too complex, but not so much so that it would put me off reading other books by this author.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The President's Vampire by Christopher Farnsworth

In this book we get to see what an outlier Nathaniel Cade really is: he's a vampire, but he's not on the Other Side (which has apparently infiltrated not only the CIA and a shady contractor, Archers/Andrew, but also Yale as well). There's a retrovirus here which remakes humans into snakeheads (lots of almost-plausible-sounding science)--it basically works like a zombie plague might--but it's getting better at making scarier snakeheads at every outbreak, which would imply human involvement and development. There's a lot of blood, a lot of guts, and a lot of backstabbing in this story--but the mystery is well done, and it does a nice job developing the relationship between Cade and his liaison to the President, Zach Barrows as well. I also enjoyed the development and hints about many popular conspiracy theories (especially the Kennedy assassination).