Friday, June 29, 2012

The Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel

This book suffers from the same problem as many of the earlier books in the series: Auel is more interested in figuring out how people realized that men are biologically related to their children than in telling a good story. In this installment Ayla and Jondalar arrive at his home after he has been away for five years. The conflicts in the story are of two types: first, some people dislike Ayla because they are petty, jealous, and ashamed of themselves. Second, Ayla want to have it all (be a spiritual leader and a wife and mother) and even though there are no rules against it--and several women who do it successfully--and everyone says that she can do it, she's not sure she can. These conflicts point to a central problem with Ayla: she never has any meaningful conflicts that put her own identity or values into question. In every conflict, the narrative positions her as clearly in the correct, and having such a perfect protagonist is of no real interest.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This book, the sequel to Wolf Hall, depicts Thomas Cromwell's involvement in the execution of Anne Boleyn. Even though the end is clear to even the most casual students of the Tudors, the book does an excellent job imagining the tension of those last few months: the multiple possibilities opening up and then closing in towards the executioner's block. Although the characters are all viivid (Henry, Katherine, Chapuys, Anne, Jane Seymour all stand out), the portrait of Cromwell is masterful. What were his motivations? His fears? How did he cope with the death of his wife? The threats of the nobles whose downfall he was orchestrating? Why was he so fiercely protective of Wyatt? While this book doesn't pretend to offer definitive answers, it does provide a plausible and compelling case for one way of understanding the man.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

This book is pretty funny. As it turns out, we're all living according to the lies the evil librarians have told us; dinosaurs are still alive, and there are three whole new continents (who would believe that 70% of the earth is water anyway? What a waste!). Alcatraz Smedry (the librarians name prisons after the great heroes of the Free Kingdoms, on those three continents) has been living a normal ife, but on his thirteenth birthday his inheritance (a bag of sand) is the beginning of a series of adventures that introduces him to a larger world. Lots of funny, meta-fictional commentary on the role of the narrator and what authors want. Also not shy about poking fun at the Harry Potter series. I really enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

This book was an enjoyable piece of historical fiction, with a speculative side. It starts as fairly straight historical fiction about a rich Boston family struggling to cope with the deaths of its mother and sister on the Titanic (a slightly implausible premise anyway because only four of the women in first class died; most made it to life boats). But as the story moves back towards the father's experiences shipping in China and forward to the other daughter's interests in spiritualism, it gradually becomes apparent that there's more going on than at first appeared. I found the twist disorienting, and while I liked the Salem connection (which seems, at least, to put this book in the same universe as The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane), I think I would have liked a bit more payoff on the Titanic angle.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

This book combines a magical system inspired by Pokemon and the idea of a lost Roman legion (albeit thousands of years after they were lost) to set up a pretty interesting series. It took a little while to get how the magic works straight, and obviously the main character (Tavi) is more than he seems--some of the plot ideas were predictable, but the story is enjoyable and fast paced. It's not as funny as the Dresden Files, but I'll be interested to see where this series goes next.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I found this book interesting because while it starts with an historical realism (it sounds like the bildungsroman of a boy growing up in a hippy commune in the seventies), it moves forward in time to a future world, made increasingly uninhabitable by global warming and spreading epidemic disease. Or you could say that it moves from one distopia (we see the dream of a commune crumbling, crushed by the pressures of too many people, outward society--the police, and not enough money) to another (an apocalyptic vision of our future). Indeed, the second distopia is more disturbing than the first; for the realism of the first part of the book implies that we are headed for the second with little hope of reprieve. Despite the problems the world faces in the second part of the book, however, and looming personal problems for our protagonist (his wife has disappeared, his teenage daughter is a teenager, and his mother suffers from a slowly debilitating disease), we see the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. I didn't like this book as well as Monsters of Templeton, but it did give me a lot to think about.

The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card

This book picks up the pace in the Alvin Maker series again: there's far less repetition of past events and the story moves forward as Alvin rescues thousands of slaves and impoverished French people from New Barcy (New Orleans, under the control of the Spanish) and finds the spot for his Crystal City. He also discovers that to make the city, not everyone need be a maker, but everyone needs to have a part in it. I loved the addition of Abe Lincoln to the series, but I missed Taleswapper (and Peggy, for that matter, who is definitely there, but doesn't have as much of a role). I'm not sure if Card still intends to wrap this series up with a seventh book (supposedly titled Alvin Maker) but if he does write it, I'll be interested to see how he ends things--Peggy's visions make it sound like there will be bad with the good at the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

In this book the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent to Father Christmas) has gone missing, and Death has taken it upon himself to do the job. Naturally, a brilliant satire of Christmas follows (replete with little match girls who are supposed to die to make everyone else feel better about themselves). As usual, Death puts in a more sympathetic performance than most of the humans around him. What really pushed this book above the standard Discworld novel, for me, though, was its meditations not just on Christmas but belief (or faith). Also, all the plotlines came together in rewarding ways. One of my favorite Discworld novels.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

This book masterfully tells the story of a jazz band just before and during the Second World War. The trumpet player, Hieronymous Falk, is a prodigy--worthy to play with Louis Armstrong, but even in Paris he's having visa problems (his German nationality isn't helping matters any) as the band tries to head for the United States. Jealousies about musical talent and a woman, and the pressures of living in occupied Paris all come to a boil as the band cuts a wonderful record turning Nazi propaganda on its head. I loved the way this book played out--moving between (something close to) the present day and the past, with a narrator just self-interested enough not to be entirely trusted. It's a fresh and engaging World War II story.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan

This book did a great job of wrapping up the Kane Chronicles. I enjoyed watching the Kanes negotiate maintaining their own personality and individuality in the face of incredibly powerful gods whose help they needed to defeat the forces of Chaos. This trilogy is entertaining and similar in conception and execution to the Percy Jackson books (with a different set of gods, of course). It's a fun introduction to Egyptian mythology, and a compelling story.

Plains of Passage by Jean Auel

This book, like those that come before it, gets too hung up in the minutiae of prehistoric life and what the characters thought about the world, and loses its sense of direction. I enjoyed the section where Ayla and Jondalar saved a group from a tyrannical woman ruler the most. It's not that I mind all reflection, but in this series, things get pedantic.

Home by Toni Morrison

This book chronicles the return home of Frank Money, a Korean War veteran. Frankly, it isn't Morrison's best work. It's short--and seems to end too soon. A lot of the complexity and layers that makes both Beloved and Song of Solomon so memorable is missing from this book.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

This book is a typical Discworld novel. It was funny in places, and everything came together in the end, but the satire wasn't quite as cutting or as funny as some of the other books. It focuses on the Watch.

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

This book gives the history of a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as its owner decides whether to leave it to a distant cousin who seems interested in pursuing a life elsewhere. I found the mystery wonderfully handled: even though it hangs over the entire story, it doesn't dominate the smaller set-pieces. In each vignette, we learn a little more about life on the plantation and the tragedies that the cultural and economic institutions cause to the inhabitants of this world. I'm definitely going to look at Tilghman's other work.

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

I found this collection of poetry beautiful and moving. Collins does a great job writing poems that are both accessible and entertaining, as he reflects on life and mortality. Both the language and the metaphors in this collection are sprightly and surprising at times.

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

SPOILER ALERT: The point of this book seems to be to break Sookie and Eric up so that Sookie can have a family someday. Eric is being romanced by a vampire queen, and he seems to be counting on Sookie to use her wish to win his love (despite the fact that neither of them acts like they have an ounce of passion for each other). I'm curious to see where the story ends, but I think the television series has done a much better job with the stories and the world.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor

This collection of short stories is Flannery O'Connor at her finest. The stories are simple at first brush--but through the simple plot, she really gets into the heart of the characters. The stories don't shy away from the grotesque or the human heart at its best and worst. I found this collection incredibly moving, and I know I'll come back to these stories again.

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Berry

This book chronicles the sense of loss that its narratory, Lily Bere works through during the days following her grandson's death by suicide. As she deals with her grief, she also reflects on the entirety of her life, from her early days in Ireland, to her flight to America, and her days as a cook here. The book is both elegiac and beautiful as it slowly develops into a portrait of a life.

Home Improvement: Undead Edition edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner

This collection contains stories focused on home improvement of some type or another. While the quality was uneven, I really enjoyed the Sookie Stackhouse story. Generally this collection worked fairly well. There was a fair amount of humor in some of these stories, and it generally worked.

Blood Lite II: Overbite by Kevin J. Anderson

Like its predecessor, this collection of short stories didn't strike me as particularly funny. I think the collection suffers from the focus on humor--the stories weren't all that funny. Also, several of them had worldsystems/mythologies that were hard to parse for a short story (like they were taken from complicated, longer series).

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

This book is part biography of John Brown, part explanation of his raid at Harper's Ferry--from its planning to its execution to its aftermath. There's less personal in this book compared to Confederates in the Attic and A Voyage Long and Strange--Horwitz does a great (and entertaining) job of teasing out the facts, the movement of various players, and history's ironies, but you don't see him doing his research or his personal reactions to the material (as you do in the other books). The book is not particularly scholarly--but it's a great lay introduction to one of the most divisive moments in US history.

11/22/1963: A Novel by Stephen King

This book uses time travel to explore the consequences of changing history--specifically the Kennedy assassination. While the ability to time travel is never really explained, most of the rules are quite clear and kept up by the story. The characters who time travel are (or become) well aware of the consequences of this ability and the story does a great job looking at the consequences of what-ifs and finally highlights the inability of the human mind to figure it all out. It's a great story--good for the beach.

The Dead of Night by Peter Lerangis

This book finds Dan and Amy rescuing Atticus and heading off to Samarkand looking for a stale orb (i.e. an astrolabe). Frankly, this book is a lot more of the same--adventure, codes to be solved, blatant disregard for authority in favor of the family expertise. I'm interested to see what's going on with the kids' father--who has been alive all these years, and at the very least was a Vesper once. For such smart kids, it seemed to take them a long time to figure out the stale orb/astrolabe connection.

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This book begins to solve some of the problems plaguing the later Wheel of Time novels. Its plot is finally moving forward again toward the Final Battle and a logical conclusion. I really enjoy the White Tower sections--Egwene has really come into her own. Not much of Elayne, Mat, or Perrin in this book. I'm still frustrated by several of the characters' and cultures' conceptions of honor (especially the Aiel), but I think Sanderson's role in the series has helped to get things moving again. Looking forward to the last two books.

The System of the World by Neal Stepheson

The final volume in the Baroque Cycle is easily the best and most entertaining of the trilogy. Here, all the various strands of the plot pay off and come together in a thrilling conclusion. The action seems more directed, there's lots of excitement, and hints of greater things than we knew through history. Stephenson does a great job setting the mood of the period, from his language use to the scientific debates (Newton against Leibniz is a huge part of this) to the changing system of the world (in which currency becomes increasingly important). Although I understand the series is fictional, it really helped make that period of British history more real and exciting. Even though the first two books were frustrating at times, I am so glad that I finished this series.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

This book starts with "the problem that has no name"--the ennui, depression, and discontent of housewives in the 1960s--and traces that problem to larger questions of social structure. While parts of this book seem dated (thank goodness!), the questions of not only the social structures that lead to this problem, but also how we allowed it to happen (after women had already earned the legal right to vote) still seem relevant today. Friedan supports her case with both anecdotes and statistics. Worth reading for historic interest, at least.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays by Northrop Frye

This volume contends that literary criticism lacks both the structure and the vocabulary to adequately deal with its topic, and although Frye claims he doesn't have the ability to create a definitive structure, in a series of four essays on modes, symbols, myths, and genres, he lays out his model for criticism. A few introductory caveats are in order: the critic is neither the parasite of the creator nor the servant of a different discipline (Frye finds critics who work exclusively from a Marxist, feminist, or other perspective too constraining). Frye's argument is wide-ranging, dense, and extremely general--he speaks of types rather than quoting specific examples (except in his work on genre). I agreed with a lot of the arguments, but I would find it difficult to do this type of criticism myself.