Friday, May 31, 2013

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

This book is an odd story. Niffenegger wrote it at the request of the Royal Ballet to provide a modern fairy tale as backstory for the new ballet they recently created. I am very curious about how this story might be staged as a ballet. It's dark and confusing at times, which is appropriate for a fairy tale, and although some questions linger, I think as a fairy tale, it works. The illustrations are beautiful.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

This book brings the First Law trilogy to an explosive conclusion. The roles of the characters continue to change as the Union is beset by even more uncertainty: Bethod exposes himself in the North, Eaters drive the South to bring war to the city of Adua, and the king dies without an heir. But as characters we have grown to know find themselves in new roles, something seems a little off, almost like things are being controlled by someone with more power than kindness. While the characters do not get what they want, what they deserve, a happy ending, or even a conventional fantasy ending, I think this book works--the ending fits the story told. And while it's depressing in many ways, it's also a fresh pleasure in a genre that can feel stale in less talented hands.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

This book combines a number of stories. While a mutiny on a slave ship is perhaps the key event in the story; the vast majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of two English characters: Erasmus Kemp, the son of the man who outfitted the ship, and his cousin Paris, a disgraced doctor who sails with the voyage. The book explores kinds of possibility: How cruel can humans be to each other? What are the costs of disappointment? What possible satisfactions can we obtain from revenge? Is it possible for a group of people, one set of whom tried to sell the other set into slavery, and who speak many different languages, to live together in harmony? altogether it makes a fascinating story. Winner of the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

In this book Tiffany Aching leaves home to train as a witch, but must face the hiven, an enemy which can get inside her head and turn her downright nasty. I liked the second half of this book, which featured Tiffany thinking for herself on how to finally defeat the hiven and what it means to be a witch better than the first, where she was more passive. The second half also has a good appearance by Granny Weatherwax, who is as delightful as always. Like the other young adult Discworld books, I don't think the humor, parody, and satire work as well here as it does in the adult books.

Revan by Drew Karpyshyn

This book is set way back in Star Wars mythology--thousands of years before the events of the movies. It brings together the stories of Scourge, a Sith Lord seeking more power in the Empire (of that time) and Revan, a Jedi who betrayed his cause and lost his memory and now knows there's something ugly on the edges of the galaxy. The story ties into a video game, but it wasn't too hard to pick up what was going on. I thought it did a better job of filling in what was happening in a galaxy far, far, away a long time ago than in developing its characters (although those familiar with the game might not find them as sketchy).

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

This book follows Lyman Ward tracing his own family history--in particular that of his grandmother, who was friends with a number of nineteenth-century movers and thinkers--as he's confined to his wheelchair and fighting with his son for his independence. But as Ward traces the events of his grandmother's life, the reader gradually becomes aware that the difficulties and challenges she faced (particularly in her marriage) have more than historical interest for Lyman. While the book never directly answers the question of whether history must repeat itself, it suggests that by delving into the past, we can learn to understand our worst tendencies, even if we can't overcome them.

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

This book compares traditional societies (which have dominated the vast majority of human history) to state societies like the United States in order to think about the ways in which we can learn from traditional societies in the Western world. While Diamond acknowledges that we may not want to return to many aspects of traditional societies (particularly their approaches to war and strangers), we might adopt (or re-adopt) some of their practices selectively, such as bilingualism, forms of conflict resolution, and forms of child-rearing, and pay attention to other practices in order to modify our lives for the better (for example, we could cut back on the salt and sugar in our diets to reduce illnesses like hypertension and diabetes). I found the book very entertaining (although the main argument was repeated so many times in similar form that it got a little repetitive).

Fictions of the Sea: Critical Perspectives on the Ocean in British Literature and Culture edited by Bernhard Klein

This collection of essays examines the role of the sea in British literature. It starts with more general topics (like a history of the claimants to the sea and reflections on the sea and modernity) and then moves on to specific readings of maritime fiction as a genre and of specific works (like several of Conrad's sea stories). Some of the essays are stronger than others, but overall the collection is best for background knowledge rather than its specific insights or theoretical developments.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is an excellent coming of age story with a good dose of fantasy. Although Sunny was born in the United States, her parents have moved the family back to their native Nigeria. Sunny doesn't fit in because she's albino...and because she's a Leopard Person (she can work magic, or juju). But with a serial killer on the loose, Sunny has to find out who she is and what she can do quickly. This book is full of Nigerian folklore, and a great story about finding your place and your identity. I hope Ms. Okorafor writes more of Sunny's adventures.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

This book owes something to the beginning of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: it's narrated by an Irish child struggling to make sense of his world. The plot develops slowly and secondarily to character development. By the time I realized I was, in part, reading the story of the dissolution of the Clarkes' marriage, I was halfway through. The prose is beautiful and the story is moving. Winner of the 1993 Booker prize.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

This book is not quite in the same league as The Teleportation Accident, but it was still a great story. It features Kevin, a collector of Nazi paraphernalia who makes most of his friends on the Internet because he suffers from trimethylaminuria. When Kevin finds a letter from Hitler to a British entomologist, he finds himself rushing to solve a seventy-five year old mystery with very real implications. The complicated plot was handled very deftly, and I thought the story, filled to the brim with flawed, unhappy characters, worked very well.

The Drunken Botantist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

This volume contains encyclopedic references to many of the plants that make and flavor our alcoholic beverages. The first section is about the plants that are fermented into alcohols, the second section is about the plants that flavor our drinks, and the third section is about how to grow some of these plants at home. I found this book fascinating--especially the first section. There were lots of explanations about the hows and whys of drinking.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

This book has received a lot of criticism from fans ever since a copy appeared in Germany before its official publication date. I saw the writing on the wall in the last few books: Sookie was not going to end up with Eric. I can almost see Sookie falling for Sam. But I thought the plot was weak--it was more about bringing back everyone for one last hurrah than developing a coherent mystery or an exciting romance. I also thought Eric deserved a better send off; it makes sense to me that he and Sookie would not be together forever because she doesn't want to be a vampire (a thoroughly refreshing view, in my opinion), but not that they would break up as casually as they did. This is a series that was strongest in its middle books.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This novel tells the tale of Jun Do, whose mother has disappeared and whose father, head of an orphanage, denies his paternity. After a famine, Jun Do finds himself with many orphans in the army. As his career continues, he rises through the North Korean military and intelligence communities, and quickly falls into prison, where he realizes he can remake his life. The book is many things: part thriller, part Bildungsroman, part romance, and part exploration of how human personality can continue thrive under a savage dictatorship, it moves quickly to its climax, bewildering at first, but ultimately beautiful.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sugar in the Blood: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

This book makes a passionate case for remembering and preserving the histories of exploitation and oppression hidden by the wealth created by sugar, a case localized and directed by a history tied to Barbados, and the Ashby family in particular (the author's family). With a combination of genealogical research, historical commonalities, and clear prose, the author makes unimaginable statistics vivid, real, and personal. The book focuses on three eras: that of the first known Ashby migrant to Barbados, that of the planter who solidified the family's holdings (on the brink of emancipation, as it turned out), and that of the family the author knew personally. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the Americas.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Iron King by Maurice Druon, translated by Humphrey Hare

This book starts in France with a sibling rivalry: the wives of Philip the Fair's sons are rumored to be unfaithful, and Philip's daughter Isabella, trapped in a loveless marriage to the King of England, wants to do something about it. But when the family is royal, the repercussions of a family fight are wide: they extend to the church and the very peace of the kingdom. I really enjoyed this book, which is historical fiction in the best French tradition and sets up a series clearly and compellingly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

This volume splits the action into three areas: the North where Colonel West only finds help from Logen Ninefinger's gang of Northmen when the war (and the Crown Prince's idea of strategy) goes bad; the South where Superior Glotka faces a battle he cannot win to keep a city the Union does not want; and the far reaches of the world, where Bayaz leads a barbarian from the North, the military darling of the capital, a former slave, a navigator, and his apprentice to find a weapon that can help end a war that's been centuries in the making. Abercrombie handles a large cast of characters adeptly--all of them tortured (and most of them bearing the scars of that torture), and most of them troubled and morally ambiguous--and he makes readers appreciate the characters and understand their conflicts. I can't wait to see how this trilogy ends.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

This collection of fairy tales is selected from the Grimm brothers' final 1857 anthology of fairy tales. Pullman has translated (and in some cases adapted) the stories to tell what he considers to be the best fairy tale. There are a lot of familiar tales and a number of unfamiliar ones too--and all of them are classified and given a place in folklore through helpful end notes. These fairy tales have their own standards--their standards are not those of modern literature, for example--and they rely heavily on a system that rewards and punishes characters for their actions. At times the stories are gruesome, at times unrealistic, and at times they do not take the familiar routes to the stories, but this collection is well-worth a read.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber

This book is a fairly typical zombie thriller dressed up in Star Wars garb. Darth Scabrous, a Sith lord in charge of a school for Sith, has discovered the secret to immortality. He orders the Jedi Hestizo Trace to be kidnapped, in order to gain access to the very rare Murakami orchid with which she has a special Force connection. The only problem is a side effect of the immortality potion causes the dead to walk. Lots of fun zombie fights, but in the end I didn't really care very much about any of the characters. I enjoyed it for its peek into the Star Wars universe in the days long before the movies.

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

I liked this book more by its end than I thought I might at its beginning. It tells the story of Sarah Weston, a grad student in musicology, who receives a mysterious invitation to work at a Prague museum over the summer, cataloguing scores and papers relating to Beethoven, her musical hero. But even before she arrives at the castle, she realizes that all is not well. Most of the story was really clever and inventive. But there were a number of moments when I found myself rolling my eyes--many of the characters seemed to lack clear motivation, especially at first. I'm intrigued to see where the story goes next.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin

This book gives a broad overview of the history of higher education in the United States from its colonial beginnings until 2000. It does a really nice job teasing out some of the nuances, especially in terms of the relationship between state and federal governments and institutions of higher education--what does it mean to be a public institution? what were the results of the Morrill Land Grant act? It also incorporates the history of women and people of color in education into its history, rather than isolating these groups in short, separate chapters. Thelin always has his eye on two goals: present an honest history that really looks at the changes in higher education (rather than single-mindedly valorizing the past as better and bemoaning the present) and show how we can learn from the past (successes and mistakes) to make higher education serve the country more successfully than ever. At times Thelin repeats the same anecdote, and the book aims at a big-picture rather than an in-depth account, but this is a great introduction to the history of higher education in the United States.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

This book requires patience: it's written in a Scots dialect and in a stream-of-consciousness style that takes you inside the head of Sammy, an ex-con on a string of terrible luck. He wakes up after a bender to find that he's now blind and has been arrested, and then, after his release faces the disappearance of his girlfriend, the police, who question him about his participation in a crime they won't reveal, and the horrors of the welfare state and its bureaucracy as he tries to register his disability. This is definitely a book you have to adjust your way of thinking to understand--its lyricism is tied to its unfamiliar (and at times coarse) dialect, the action (such as there is) can be obscured by the stream-of-consciousness style, and Sammy is not the most appealing protagonist at first glance. But after getting to know Sammy, his resilience in the face of adversity shines through. Winner of the 1994 Booker Prize.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

This book continues the stories of Dr. Rivers and some of his patients, especially Billy Prior, during World War I. Billy is put in the position of choosing between his government job and the family of the woman who raised him, a woman suspected of plotting to assassinate Lloyd George. Billy's position is all the more complicated due to periods of missing time where he doesn't remember his actions. This book continues Barker's explorations of the psychic wounds of World War I.

The Edge of Doom by Amanda Cross

This book seems to overstate its sense of urgency both in its title and in its jacket copy to me. Kate Fansler suddenly discovers one reason that she may be so disconnected from her brothers is that she had a different father (proven via DNA testing, no less!). But she quickly discovers that her father has plenty to hide in his past. This mystery certainly helped explain Kate's character, but it was less good as a mystery.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

This book starts with a war in Borogravia--not that that's anything new--there's almost always a war on in Borogravia. But this time, Polly Perks is in on the action as she has joined the army to bring her brother back. Polly, now known as Ozzer, slowly realizes that she's not in an entirely normal regiment when someone hands her an extra pair of socks in the latrine. And when the women finally start getting honest about going to war, Borogravia finally has a chance of a better life for all of its citizens.

The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

This book reminds me of both Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz. There's the personal aspect--as if it's a memoir, but there's also the observer aspect--like many other books about the South, it's author has one foot in and one foot out. I found the writing clear and the thinking on questions Southern (such as: what does history mean? what are the costs of maintaining certain kinds of memory? what things do we falsely assume about the South?) engaging.

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 4th Edition by Joseph Williams

This book summarizes Joseph Williams's theories of writing well in ten chapters. The book is a condensed version of the longer Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and I think the condensation may make the book harder to understand and use for someone not already familiar with Little Red Schoolhouse principles. I think the principles themselves are sound--especially for those who want to write persuasively (as opposed to fiction or creative non-fiction). This book would be a good supplement to a course, as long as the instructor is committed to reinforcing the book's principles in class.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

In this book Flavia de Luce begins solving a mystery starting in the church: when they plan to exhume St. Tancred for the 500th anniversary of his death, little do the villagers of Bishop's Lacey expect to find a more fresh body in the tomb. But there is Mr. Collicutt, the organist who disappeared several weeks ago, and Flavia believes (as usual) that it's up to her to solve the mystery. In so doing, she finds that the roots of this mystery run deep--both beneath the church and into her own family history. The narrator of this audiobook was really excellent--in addition to the great story, it was a pleasure to listen to!

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

This book is part biography and part history. It's about the four daughters of Raymond Berenger, count of Provence. Marguerite and Eleanor marry the kings of France (Louis IX) and England (Henry III), respectively, and the two younger daughters marry their sisters' brothers-in-law. Both of these brothers are crowned kings in their own right (although they do less ruling). Sanchia marries Richard of Cornwall, who is briefly king of Germany, and Beatrice inherits Provence and marries Charles of Anjou who takes the throne of Sicily. I was very interested in the power politics behind the thrones, and I loved reading the history associated with these four women. I was surprised by how much a king's prowess in battle mattered in the Middle Ages, and by how religious Louis and Henry both were. I also enjoyed a minor theory expounded in the book: while earlier Provence had been the center of a literary movement (troubadours writing poems about courtly love) after Raymond Berenger died, there was no count (and thus no court) in residence in Provence (Beatrice lived in Sicily, and in other places, after her marriage), so there was not the same support for the arts, and the interest in love poetry moved south--to Italy.

Honest Doubt by Amanda Cross

In this book Kate Fansler takes a backseat to a new PI, Estelle "Woody" Woodhaven. I didn't love the new PI; I missed seeing more of Kate. The plot also felt a little recycled: it's the death of another hated, old-fashioned professor, this time through an overdose of heart medication in the foul alcohol that only he drinks. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I thought the ending of this book took too much from a famous Agatha Christie mystery. The first time it was done, it was novel and exciting, but in this book, it just felt like a cop out.

Day of Doom by David Baldacci

This book concludes the Cahills v. Vespers chapter of the 39 Clues. It wraps up a lot of loose ends (some in frustrating ways). Dan, Amy, Atticus, and Jake race to stop a doomsday machine--and there's less of the charming historical detail and discovery because there's so much action to fit in and so many plot lines to tie up.

The American College and University: A History by Frederick Randolph

This book gives a wide-ranging history of higher education in the United States from its colonial beginnings to the 1960s (when the book was written). It works admirably to show the broad types of changes in higher education--its forms and priorities. Reading this book makes this much clear: while it's easy to look at the challenges facing higher education today and bemoan how much better things were in the past, higher education never faced a clear or easy road. Instead, its history is a long history of compromises and attempts to finance something that many people want but no one wants to pay for. While the book is good on broad strokes, it's less good at looking beyond the history of white men: education for women and education for African-Americans each have only one short chapter.