When books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages does...moreWhen books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages doesn't always translate into an increase in scope or a requisite complexity to tell the story at hand. Sometimes the length of a hefty book works against it, if the story inside is interesting but the writer spends too much time faffing around on asides or subplots or secondary characters. Or maybe an editor somewhere just didn't exert the sorcery of his or her healing red pen. Then, there are times when overstuffed novels are welcome, when the book is just so good and the characters so enchanting that you don't mind indulging the authorial extravagance.
NOS4A2 falls into this last category. It tells the tale of Victoria "Vic" McQueen, aka "The Brat", following her from young girl with a knack for finding lost things, all the way into adulthood where her ability and the curious mechanics of it have left a deep scar on her life. The book winds its way up to the central plot via a protracted prologue that takes up the first third of the book. A lot of time is spent establishing the relationship between Vic and her father, Chris, which is cleverly/symbolically dropped after Chris abandons Vic and her mother. And while there are relatively few characters in a book this size, each gets plenty of attention and development such that, by the end, even though this is Vic's story, it feels important to know what becomes of Lou and Wayne and Tabitha and Bing and the others.
It deserves to be said, in case anyone felt like dancing around it, that Joe Hill harkens his dad, Stephen King. I mean that in a good way. NOS4A2 feels like a book written not by someone trying to ape King, but by a gifted writer who happens to be a superfan of the horror mega-star. By someone who has taken a scholarly approach to the library produced by a writer who happens to be this guy's dad. King's books haven't always been raw horror, and this book sits nicely alongside those parts of the King canon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, The Eye Of The Dragon. There are frightening elements to NOS4A2, but the book is not splattered with gore. Most of the torment comes from inside Vic's head.
I couldn't call NOS4A2 a perfect book. There are parts of the story that feel a little ordinary; particularly the law enforcement angle that shows up later in the book. Some of this is only in contrast to the bulk of the book which is unpredictable and exciting, so when formulas and tropes appear, they come dressed for Carnivale. The climax was also a touch disappointing because—as with several other periods of time that make up Vic's life, such as her stint in Hollywood that gets a paragraph at most—the emotional punch is delivered in a kind of off-screen/between-chapters fashion that I personally didn't care for.
But sometimes imperfect books tell the best stories, though, so even though it has a couple of warts, I loved NOS4A2. I grew up on Stephen King's brand of grim adventure stories and this felt like a half-homage, half-revisit to those reading days of my young life and I appreciated it's ability to filter that sense into a new, exciting tale.(less)
From time to time I like to check out one of the books my wife enjoys and/or recommends. She's been a rabid Jane Green fan for some time so I decided...moreFrom time to time I like to check out one of the books my wife enjoys and/or recommends. She's been a rabid Jane Green fan for some time so I decided to give one a chance.
I feel like I want to get my literary snootiness out of the way up front so I can talk about the novel itself, so let me just say that I don't feel like Ms. Green's writing style—at least not the one on display in this book—is really for me. Her point of view dancing and tense shifting frustrated me to the point where occasionally I felt I wanted to take a big red pen to the book. I also think this may be the only author other than George R. R. Martin I've read who spends so much time discussing clothing. Sometimes the book feels like a narrative description of Pinterest for how detailed she insists on being about everyone's outfits. And while I kind of appreciated the three-protagonist format of the book, I finished it feeling as if the three pieces never quite unified into a singular whole. These sections almost felt like a trilogy of overlapping novellas, something that might be released for $1.99 each in ebook format (were the book written ten years later, of course) rather than lumped together into a sort of de facto novel.
But enough grumbling. The main takeaway I had from the book is that I was entertained, in some sections more than others, and I came to understand something about genre preference. It seems to me that where some might deride genres for being formulaic, that's not actually the case. Instead, genres collect templates whose cores are frequently recognizeable in many of the individual works. The key is that genre fans are at root entertained by these templates. Non-fans are often unimpressed with the base genre boilerplates. And yet, works which are original enough or well-realized enough to rise above the basic tropes of the genre become universally appealing. Often people go to great lengths to decouple these examples from their own genre, to distance them from the templates, even if they technically follow them.
Which I think is why I don't think of myself as liking romantic comedies, even though I have enjoyed a number of them: the templates are not inherently all that entertaining for me.
Babyville is split into three sections, each following a protagonist. In Julia's section we meet a woman with a long term boyfriend who is trying to get pregnant. She's fiercely determined to do so in order to patch up a troubled relationship. They aren't combative per se, but they don't really mesh as well as they used to. This section is the "great on paper couple finds they are happier apart" genre template; triumph out of tragedy.
In Maeve's section, a career-focused woman accidentally finds herself pregnant following an ill-advised and uncharacteristic one-time thing and slowly begins to realize her solitary, independent existence was missing some reviled domesticity. The "career woman finds happiness in home life" template.
Then there is Sam's section, in which a first time mother struggles with the isolation of being a stay-at-home mom, with the resentment of her workload versus that of her husband, and with what is probably fairly acute postpartum depression. This is where the book stops feeling like an extended prologue section and begins to come together in a sense of unified theme and central conflict. Coming two-thirds of the way in, this is kind of awkward, and in some ways despite being the most engaging section, it's also the most problematic. Particularly I wasn't crazy about the impressions Green gives about depression and postpartum depression, furthering the misconception it is something that can be readily snapped out of given the correct sequence of events of just the right trigger. This is an irresponsible impression to give, in my opinion.
In any case this final section is the most distinct from any well-tread romantic comedy template and probably why I enjoyed it the most. Which is not to say the other sections weren't enjoyable, just that they often felt familiar enough that I spent more time feeling smug at how well I was able to predict their events than just appreciating the story. A couple of things Green does well is establish a sense of place and create character relationships that feel sweet and pleasant, as if you'd want to know and be friends with the couples.
For instance, in Julia's tale I found Green's depiction of New York life extraordinarily alluring, inspiring me to want to visit or just move there and enjoy the lifestyle Julia falls in love with. The banter she establishes between Julia and Belle, Julia and Jack, and Maeve and Mark are all distinct and yet charming. She nails female friendships and their sometimes complicated loyalty structures and honesty/support minefields. And its worth noting that the ambitious structure of the book, while not always successful, is impressively bold.
Which all comes down to a bit of a mixed bag but one in which I ultimately enjoyed. It had to have some elements of "enjoyed in spite of…" but I'm not sure that undermines the basic sense of entertainment I got out of it. Not sure I'd race out to read more Jane Green books, but as usual when reading my wife's favorite authors, I'm glad to have more (pop-)cultural common ground with her.(less)
For a while, I thought Dark Places might end up being my favorite of the three. It starts with an intriguing hook, and builds with a desperation like the last point of a winner-take-all tennis tournament. Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, a woman in her early thirties; her life has been defined by the grisly murders of her two sisters and her mother. Libby survived, and famously testified in court against her older brother, sending him away to prison for life.
Libby is a broken woman, guilt-ridden, lazy, listless, unfocused, physically and mentally stunted. She's also becoming increasingly desperate as her sympathy fund, which has carried her through her wasted life, is nearly depleted. She connects with a loose organization of true crime nerds and decides they might be her ticket to a few more months of dodging the world, but in order to play ball with them, she has to dig into her past, into her tragic family, and most of all, into that fateful night.
Dark Places tracks both Libby's quest for answers as well as the events of the day and night the murders took place, swapping points of view between current-day Libby, her teenaged brother Ben in 1985, and her mother Patty leading up to her infamous death. Along the way, familiar themes are hauled out and examined in a cruel, flickering flourescent light of Flynn's twisted prose: money and poverty, family and regret, self-loathing and unlikely alliances.
The progression and escalation of the plot are pitch-perfect, each dark revelation coming fast and with furious thrills of revolting intrigue, and it's a formula that works except there is a veneer of a mystery novel here. But, because mysteries tend to hinge on their resolution, Dark Places struggles at the climax to make good on the promise of the chilling investigation phase. Perhaps it is because every significant revelation plays a part in the overwrought conclusion. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the book's answers are telegraphed early on but obfuscated with an unlikely coincidence that strains disbelief.. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that what I cared most about—the developing emotional connections between several key leads—fizzles in the final few chapters instead of stepping up to center stage as I felt it should.
Ms. Flynn is a remarkable writer, and her pacing, plotting, and unsettling characterizations have created in three books a wonderfully dark canon. This book isn't the sickening takedown punch it could have been, but it comes close.(less)
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed....moreSome scenes of my life while reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film:
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed. I nod off, snap awake, read a few lines, nod off again. I can't bring myself not to fight my way to the end of the chapter. - At roughly the halfway point, I discover the interactive elements of the book, including a smartphone app. I try to go back to find the pages that unlock new extended content, but find they are too distracting. Any time spent fiddling in this way is time I'm not spending making progress. - Given a block of uninterrupted reading time, I drink two pots of coffee rather than waste the time dozing or being too sleepy to continue reading. - Home alone as I read a partiuclarly harrowing scene, my upstairs neighbor slams her front door. Startled, I yelp and convulse so badly the Kindle flies out of my hand and falls on the floor. - My only thought as I collect the reader is, "That sceen better at least still be legible or I'm going up there." - At the 75% mark I sit down, still 200 or so pages from the end, and begin to read, thinking I'll make as much progress as I can and probably finish in two or three more days (I read very slowly). Four hours later, I finish the book, well after midnight.
Granted, not all of these moments are incredibly unique when I get captured by a book. But Night Film crept around me like a shadow from behind so quickly and smoothly I didn't realize I was standing in it until it blocked out all the light. I had Night Film dreams. I concocted reasons to go back to reading it. I felt, at times, as if I were a character in the book, as if somehow Pessl had accomplished the impossible and written a story that went beyond the odd obfuscation of second-person and reached out through the pages and pulled the reader by the shirt into the narrative. By the end, I'm still not entirely convinced that isn't true.
Night Film is the kind of book about which I don't want to reveal too much plot information. It starts with discgraced reporter Scott McGrath jogging in Central Park late at night. He sees a woman in a red coat and black boots on several of his laps, but he can never quite get a glimpse of her face. She seems, perhaps, to be trying to send him a message of some sort, but she unnerves him. She's in places she shouldn't be, moving in ways that don't seem quite possible. Scott finishes his run, heads to the subway. Just as the train pulls away from the platform, he sees black boots coming down the steps, and the hem of a red coat.
When the news hits that reclusive underground filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova's troubled young daughter, Ashley, has committed suicide reaches Scott, he realizes from the accounts that the woman in the red coat was Ashley. Aside from the odd encounter at the park, Scott's history ties into the Cordovas in another way: researching the Cordova films and auteur is what directly led to Scott's fall from grace. But something doesn't sit right about Ashley's death and Scott decides he needs to finish what he started and re-open the case on Cordova.
Pessl tells the story with a narrative that switches gears subtly several times. She uses screen captures of online news articles (artfully recreated from actual sources like Rolling Stone and Newsweek), photographs (several of the characters have actors associated with them who re-appear throughout the mixed media narrative), websites, evidence, and the aforementioned extended material in the associated app. The story reads at times like a great mystery/caper, other times it becomes a research thriller like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and occasionally it dips into pure horror or psychological terror. Pessl takes her time getting to the satisfying end without ever getting dull or overstaying her welcome.
This is not a flawless book, though. Pessl insists on using a ridiculous amount of italics, many of which actually detract from the flow, rather than add to it. It gets incredibly annoying. The ending, while satisfactory, has a meandering quality that feels a bit—especially considering the contextualization leading up to it—as if it's occasionally trying too hard to tie up the loose ends.
But I'm happy to overlook these and heartily recommend this gripping, engaging, affecting book. When I finished it, I felt like I'd experienced something, as if I'd had a memorable real-life encounter, an enigmatic if fleeting moment I'd turn over and over in the days to come. Pessl creates a world that is so close to our own while being tantalizingly remote, it's oddly more horrible than reality and yet has an allure. The threads this winds through the narrative, beyond the words and into the reader's mind is enchanting like a bad dream you don't want to wake from.(less)
One reason book clubs are a good idea is that they occsionally find you reading books you never heard of, or that you might have dismissed out of hand...moreOne reason book clubs are a good idea is that they occsionally find you reading books you never heard of, or that you might have dismissed out of hand on the off chance it did penetrate your spehere of awareness. Robertson Davies's Fifth Business was such a book for me and I'm delighted to say I am glad for such injections into my reading schedule.
The book follows Dunstan Ramsay's life, related in a framework of a detailed letter to his boss in which he defends himself against a broad supposition that he is a knowable dullard. He outlines his existence as what he refers to as "Fifth Business", supposedly a term from European opera houses describing the character of central plot performance who is neither protagonist nor love interest, nor rival, nor villain. This character is defined by their ability to lubricate the stories of others. The tapestry of character presented here is significant for the way in which Ramsay's thesis—that he is a real-world Fifth Business—is both understadable and capable of such interpretation, in some ways in relation to whichever other major character you cast in the various other roles. Yet at the same time Ramsay also overlooks his own role as central protagonist such that each character who enters Davies's narrative fufills multiple roles depending upon whose story you presume is being told.
It's a complex book, one that requires some thought and—thankfully it exists in a book club context for me—further discussion. It's also quite enjoyable but in a sort of intellectual biography sort of way which makes it not dull but a very slow read. It took me nearly a month to read a 250 page book which is kind of unheard of for something I find myself enjoying. But it reads the way complexly flavored dishes taste: it demands a slower chew, a thoughtful reflection on each bite. This is no syrupy dessert to be scarfed down.
It occurred to me near the end that this book reminded me in a very peculiar way of The Great Gatsby. Granted, this is a peek into the lives of religious scholars and illusionists and philanthropists and not raw capitalists (though Boy Staunton does a superior Candadian twist on the Jay Gatsby tragic/ironic rich man's arc) and as such it has depth where F. Scott Fitzgerald had imagery. Still, there are some parallels I couldn't shake and I came away thinking it something of a shame that Gatsby is handed out like student ID cards to every high schooler and this book flounders in quasi-obscurity. Perhaps it is because Gatsby is such an American book, but I found myself much preferring Davies's work to Fitzgerald's because, extracting the nationalism, FIfth Business is so much more human.(less)
Richard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understan...moreRichard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understanding. This is a strange, lonely book full of pathos and gritty exposition. Neville is neither hero nor anti-hero, inhabiting a kind of character space that inspires a certain degree of sympathy but managing to hold readers at a distance for not being the kind of plucky survivor one might find in other post-apocalypse settings. He works occasionally to understand the cause of the vampirism that took everything from him but life, he drinks a lot, tries to bury his past, struggles with his physical urges, spends a lot of time getting angry at his situation, at himself, at the vampires in general. Somewhere in there emerges a sense of realism; in under 200 pages Matheson manages to chronicle the malestrom of internal conflict that would likely typify the lot of the last man on Earth.
And this is a deeply troubling story. The famous black-as-night ending is horrifying in its implications and tragic language; the triumphs that either permit Neville to continue surviving (or at least fail to give him sufficient reason to give up) are wafer-thin while the ongoing devastations he endures begin to feel oppressive by the two-thirds mark. This is a horror story not because it is frightening in the sense one might expect from a story about vampires, but because it is ruthless in its willingness to break Neville's (and the reader's) heart with unflinching matter-of-factness. It sounds weird to say so, but I kind of loved Matheson for that.
It surprised me that the story didn't feel more dated than it did; this is a book that considers the mid-to-late 1970s as the future so it could have felt like a relic. It was anything but. There are a few references that might be lost on younger audiences and at least one casual use of a term long considered to be a racist relic, but by and large this is an impressively timeless work. I haven't read Matheson before this but based on the strength of this book, I will definitely be reading more.(less)
I've been absorbing writing advice for a couple of years from the blog of a guy named Chuck Wendig. I have this weird habit of listening to advice (ab...moreI've been absorbing writing advice for a couple of years from the blog of a guy named Chuck Wendig. I have this weird habit of listening to advice (about writing in particular) from people without judging for myself if they are good at the thing they dispense advice over. In an attempt to get better about this, I decided to check out Blackbirds.
The interesting thing is, reading this book put an awful lot of Wendig's advice into a context so hindsight-clarifying it was like that scene in the Spider-Man movie where Peter Parker realizes he doesn't need glasses anymore, in fact they make it worse. The one thing that's clear is that Wendig listens to himself. He writes with a desperation, a sweaty urgency to read on and on and on.
The beginning of the book was—well, not slow really. I liked all the component parts, but I found myself strangely comfortable with putting it down at the end of chapters. I wish I could pinpoint what it is about the lead-in that makes it work without commanding attention. The best guess I have is that it takes a little while to get a handle on the protagonist, Miriam Black. She's a drifter in her mid-twenties with a lot of baggage and a grisly ability: she can see the exact time and circumstance of a person's death just by touching them. She uses this ability to follow the soon-to-die around so she can scavenge their bodies for petty cash and one-time-use credit cards. She drinks a lot, smokes a lot, curses a lot, and has a pitch black cynic's outlook born from her constant reminder of what a heartless bastard fate can be.
The problem, if it is one, is that Miriam is a guy-in-a-girl's body. She speaks and acts and thinks the way I imagine a lot of guys think they would if they suddenly found themselves gender-flipped. The closest thing to a girly trait or action is that she choses the morning after a one-night stand to dye her hair black. It does eventually make sense for her to be such a calloused, bitter soul, regardless of sex, but in the beginning it's hard not to keep getting pulled just far enough out of the narrative by saying, "would any woman really act that way?"
In any case, somewhere between thirty-three and fifty percent through, around the time the two semi-well-tread but thoroughly enjoyable antagonists are introduced, Blackbirds starts to pick up steam. Miriam's voice becomes just enough her own that it becomes easier to forgive her the occasional outburst of odd masculinity and the plot rockets through to the solid but not flawless finale.
Wendig writes in a hyper-cinematic style that is barebones and heavy on the clever/unexpected turn of phrase and streetwise platitude, which works very well for this type of story. There is a kind of Eli Roth/Quentin Tarantino-via-Stephen King thing in Blackbirds which, if you're comfortable with those kinds of stories, will suit you just fine and in fact I would recommend this book. But there's not a ton of finesse here and subtlety doesn't really fit into the macguffin briefcase the style carries around. I like this sort of meta-genre just fine; I suspect though that it's not everyone's cup of tea.
My takeaway is that I'll put the sequel on my to-read list and I have Wendig on my radar as more than just a source for Sam Kinison Screams Writing Advice as well. It's good to see he walks his talk.(less)
There is one central distinction between John Green's The Fault In Our Stars and his first novel, Looking For Alaska. In TFIOS, Augustus and Hazel are...moreThere is one central distinction between John Green's The Fault In Our Stars and his first novel, Looking For Alaska. In TFIOS, Augustus and Hazel are dynamic, well-realized characters who have insane chemistry between them. They are, perhaps, the kind of amazing humans who exist only in books, whose flaws are forgivable and understandable and whose endearing aspects are those which we might find annoying in real life. But they shine on the page. In Looking For Alaska, the central characters are maybe more real, perhaps less idealized, but they are also harder to reconcile. We have to be told to watch out for the Colonel's temper becuase otherwise he acts erratically. Protagonist Pudge needs to be annoyed with Alaska's moodiness because otherwise we wouldn't know that her instability isn't endearing, it's frustrating. And so on.
Occasionally the dynamics work. The group of friends central to the story—Pudge, Colonel, Alaska, Takumi, and Lara—finally start to gel as characters and overlapping relationships just before the central event in the story that by nature kind of undoes all the labored efforts to find that sweet spot. Mostly the first half of the book struggles to effectively establish the principals, racing through a series of establishing shots so Green can get to the meat of the book which happens in the latter half. It's a first novel, it's uneven, but it's not boring or uninteresting.
Once the central event occurs, the book begins to hit the highest points it achieves. Green's execution on the themes of grief and loss, the search for meaning and the nature of human relationships is a little uneven but there are moments of raw beauty and blistering truth. The seeds of what he will later be able to achieve with Stars are visible here, and that's impressive. Some of this second half doesn't work as well as it might; the mystery element is not terribly subtle and while I found its conclusion appropriate, it feels set up for something maybe more revelatory or packaged. That this manufactured satisfaction doesn't come and may irritate some. Personally, I thought it was absolutely the right way to go, but I'd guess some won't like the nebulous end.
I liked Looking For Alaska primarily as an exercise in considering the subjects dealt with, rather than on its strengths as a novel.(less)
Cormac McCarthy's The Road is about as bleak and unsympathetic a story as I have ever encountered. It follows two traveling companions, a father and h...moreCormac McCarthy's The Road is about as bleak and unsympathetic a story as I have ever encountered. It follows two traveling companions, a father and his young son, as they traverse a scorched landscape along an unidentified road. We pick up with both unnamed protagonists at a point in time and follow them until an end, of sorts. What has come before is revealed only in the barest of details, one defining flashback and then a lot of insinuation without explanation. What happens after is left unsaid.
In a way, this is kind of the epitome of a post-apocalyptic story. The cause of the apocalypse isn't revealed, the leftovers are not unique or interesting in any way. There is no allegorical society that has arisen from the ashes, there is only the remnants; there are only survivors. It seemed pretty plain to me that the road represents life. It's sort of an obvious metaphor, but the details are what define it. There is an end, indubitably, and one which the man and the boy hope will be happy but they have no way of knowing. There is nothing else for them to do but to follow the road, try to stay on it as long as possible. Eventually something has to change and they both, in a way, long for the change but they also fear it—the road and the destination. It makes other post-apocalyptic stories seem like fluffy romances in comparison.
McCarthy's prose is… well, it's hard to decide how I feel about it. Both style and structure in this novel break pretty much every rule of fiction. I suppose this is okay. This is a novel that feels like a short story. It's a tedious slog through repetitive and only grimly interesting events. It is full of fragmented sentences and painfully raw/real dialogue. It's also kind of beautiful, the way a ruined building can be beautiful in the right light, perhaps with sunbeams streaming through the jagged edges of negative space, or maybe poetic and poignant against a somber gray sky. It feels like the story might not have worked without the signature stripped, rhythmic style. But then again, I'm not sure the story works at all, so it's unclear whether this is celebration or indictment.
If nothing else this is a master class in mood evocation. Experiencing this book is oppressive, sobering, laborious. You feel the weight of the man on yourself as reader, you grasp the terror of futility from the boy in your mind. Your journey through the book mirrors theirs through the blasted remains of an Earth they didn't want, would happily do without if there were any other choice. I suppose I hated this book in a way because its vivid intensity wrapped around me like one of the man's filthy blankets, suffocating and claustrophobic but masochistically compelling. I've heard books described as life-affirming. The Road, by contrast, is death-affirming. I guess in a way I loved this book for that.
And if I were to level a single barbed criticism at the book it would be this: as much as I respect McCarthy's refusal to coddle me as a reader, his stoic and unflinching realization of a world stripped bare of everything but survival and even that bearing a mandatory question mark, his efforts demand a distance. And here is where The Road's callous handling of the reader works against it as a judgment on humanity: it reduces humanity until it is all misery and falseness of hope and injustice. Out of this comes a moment that might be wrenching, soulful and heartbreaking except by then we've lost heart, we've shredded our soul and we have no purchase upon which to grasp. From across that divide, we cannot even work up a single tear. It is too far. At best, all we can offer is a ghoulish sniff, perhaps an ironic smile. All is as it must be. As the man might say, "we'll be okay." Except, of course, we won't; because, of course, we never were.(less)
...to date it is the only book that has ever made me have to put it down because I couldn’t keep reading through the tears. I’m not sure what it says about me that the death of two dogs moved me to tears where even the most emotional demise of a human in other books could not...
Now, technically that is still true, but only because I listened to The Fault In Our Stars on audiobook which means my vision impairment was not a factor in continuing the narrative. The truth is, the tragedy in John Green's novel was acute, and I felt it like a personal loss. However, this wouldn't have been possible if that tragedy wasn't framed within the context of delight in the characters he creates here. Crying at a tearjerker isn't, for most people, all that much of a noteworthy event. Just because it doesn't happen often for me (though granted, I don't read a lot of books that fall under that genre), well, I guess that says more about me than the books I read.
What I think precipitated my investment is that I pretty much fell in love with the principals in the book, Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace. Granted, I recognized there was a certain stylization happening with these two teenagers. I was reminded of the movie Juno, where these sixteen and seventeen year-olds talk with the sort of witty precision that I'm not sure exists in the real world. Granted, Green's characterizations aren't quite as precious as Juno, but they do come across as a bit manufactured. They also lack any real flaws, other than their physical ones. But what you're seeing here is me stretching to find criticisms of the book. As much as I wish I could say the precocious admirability of these characters didn't work, revealing myself to be a wizened and appropriately cynical modern person, I can't. There is a certain manipulation inherent in a book about kids with cancer—smart, astoundingly perfect kids. It seems almost cruel to create this funny, delightful first half full of sweetness and cleverness and then know that it can't end the same way. I mean, it can, but it won't. Cancer precludes happily ever after. But it's not like this is some fictional construct Green has fabricated to hang us with our heartstrings.
They discuss the concept in TFIOS of the emotional grenade, how the inherent tragedy of a terminal patient is like a destructive weapon timed to explode on the lives of those closest to them. In a way, this book served as such a vector for me, and it's worth mentioning that the conclusion reached along this line of thought is that while the grenade may feel remorse at the damage it has no choice but to cause, the decision to fall upon it may not be a choice at all. Which is to say, I knew at a certain point what was coming and theoretically I could have stopped the audiobook and halved the book into an incomplete "sick kids fall in love and go on an adventure." But I owed it to myself to let the timer keep ticking until the explosion, and to call it a decision minimizes the truth that by the time the signposts warning of the inevitable conclusion appeared, I could no more have ignored them and abandoned the book than Hazel's parents can abandon her when her medicine inevitably ceases to work.
The only question mark that remains in my mind is how much of my affection for this book is owed to John Green's creation and how much is owed to the utterly remarkable performance of the audiobook by Kate Rudd. I say in nearly every audiobook review that I don't adjust ratings based on the quality of the narration, but this instance makes me wonder if such a thing is even possible. I don't know if it was Augustus Waters and his inflected speech patterns (coming from Mr Green) I adored or if it was Ms Rudd's charming performance of those aspects. The banter-heavy conversations between Gus and Hazel sing in the audio performance. I tried, halfway through the audio, to read a bit of the print novel from the copy at a local store to see if it was Green's writing or Rudd's reading that I was truly enamored with. It was a failed experiment: by that time I was reading the dialogue with Kate Rudd's interpretation cemented to the characters. In this case, at least, I've decided I don't care. Whether it was one or the other or a combination of the two, I loved this reading experience and would gladly suffer the tears again to experience it afresh.(less)
Before I get too off point, I want to make clear that I liked Sharp Objects. This is a dark, grim, can't-look-away train wreck in slow motion and it g...moreBefore I get too off point, I want to make clear that I liked Sharp Objects. This is a dark, grim, can't-look-away train wreck in slow motion and it grasped my wrist and raced me through its pages, holding me up well into the night. I read them out of order, but you can see shades of the wonderful character (or is that reader?) sadism Gillian Flynn put on display in Gone Girl here and this is the kind of book that puts an author on people's watch lists.
I'll try not to do too many Gone Girl comparisons, but I do want to get out of the way that what makes this book not quite live up to that standard is that the framework in Gone Girl was so much different from anything else I'd seen whereas this, while by no means directly derivative, feels familiar. At least at first. On the bright side, Sharp Objects has a (ahem) razor-like finale which compares quite favorably to the love-it-or-hate-it conclusion of Gone Girl.
Anyway, Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, cub reporter for a low circulation Chicago newspaper who gets sent back to her Missouri hometown to investigate a short series of disturbing events surrounding young girls that could be the start of something sensationally ongoing. Camille resents the assignment; home is no solace to her and she has the scars to prove it. And the scars aren't just psychological (though there are plenty of those); she's a cutter who has scarred almost every coverable inch of her body with carved words in her flesh.
The interesting part about Sharp Objects is the way Flynn constructs the narrative. This is a thriller that moves at an almost languid pace; it's never dull and the sick fascination of what drives Camille, what ails the town, what motivates her family members propels the narrative. But from an event perspective, the plotting feels prone to diversions and apparent meandering asides. It might read like a mystery except those diversions and character moments don't leave much character economy to work with, nor do Camille's motivations seem particularly aimed at solving the damn thing. In a way, Sharp Objects is more like a psychological survival horror tale, paranoid and clawing on a dwindling width of a foothold, both protagonist and reader just trying to make it through to the end somewhat intact.
What trips the novel up from being an absolute smash is a frustrating vagueness to Camille and a missed opportunity. It's apparent that our first-person narrator is a mortally damaged person, and that's no problem at all; Flynn is terrific at establishing her voice and personality. What she struggles with is giving sufficient insight behind some of the more outrageous decisions Camille makes, at crystallizing how the internal (or perhaps external) scars permit or shape the often erratic behavior as the book proceeds. There is a particular dynamic between two central characters that, if given more internal consideration or even if given more potent contextualization, wouldn't feel quite as arbitrary and, well, unrealistically creepy. I like creepy. Creepy is good, but I have to believe it and at times toward the back half of the book I found myself suppressing disbelieving laughter rather than shudders.
The missed opportunity is for a thematic unification. Maybe I've been reading Neil Gaiman too much, but I really expected the significance of the words to play a bigger role. Camille's career choice as a writer seemed so directly in keeping with her particular brokenness, the obsession with words and the chilling description of how those words felt to her had resonance to me as someone interested in and fascinated by language (as I presume most writers would have to be). And yet it never quite solidified into a grounding presence through the book, such that it felt by the end like a dangling thread, nagging to be pulled but threatening the structural integrity of the prose. It's not a foundational flaw, to be sure, but it frustrated me for being so right there and yet unexplored.
Still, between this book and Gone Girl, I'm loving Flynn's writing and this sort of ghastly sub-genre she's carving for herself, and I'm making plans to read her only other novel to date (Dark Places) sooner than I intended.(less)
That was the exact word out of my mouth upon finishing Julian Barnes's brief but extraordinary novel. There is an internal debate that rages in...more"Whoa."
That was the exact word out of my mouth upon finishing Julian Barnes's brief but extraordinary novel. There is an internal debate that rages in committing this review between what I desperately want to say and what I feel like I should say in order to keep the experience pure for those who read this before reading the book. I had few preconceptions about The Sense Of An Ending before reading and I felt myself well served because of it. When I handed the book, seconds after completion, to my wife and said, "you have to read this," she asked what it was about. My response was, "it's better if you find out for yourself."
And even that circles the point that I'm struggling to say without typing explicitly because while there are those (like me) who find the joy in experiencing something independent of foreknowledge (within reason), sometimes it feels that an experience is heightened by the surprise of discovery. If I could implore every person I know to read this book with a simple, "trust me," I'd be delighted to let that suffice. Perhaps if I could be assured that the supporting argument of, "you can easily finish it in a single afternoon, so there's no excuse" would cement the recommendation, I'd leave it at that.
If pressed, I can comfortably say that The Sense Of An Ending is about an old English man recollecting his life, or at least a specific sequence which has cause in his present to be reflected upon. Of course, that's what the plot happens to be, the book itself is about memory, remorse, and personal narrative. The little truths and lies we tell ourselves both with determined deliberateness and flippant carelessness. The nonlinear nature of our developing sense of self, folding back on itself through introspection and the occasional external perspective. Barnes' prose is magic, beautifully crafted and wasting no single word or literary gesture. Normally I'm a curmudgeonly stickler for perceived value. I resisted buying this book for myself: twenty-plus dollars for a hardback totaling 163 pages? Absurd. But this isn't a short book because it's glib or incomplete or hasty. It's not even short in the sense of being abbreviated as a short story might be. It is simply the length it needs to be and I wish more novelists—particularly literary novelists—would exhibit the restraint necessary to trim their work this lean.
The last thing I'll say is that I was reminded while reading this book of another recent favorite I found, The Last Werewolf. Not because the two have anything in common other than, perhaps, being written by British men, but because of their respective influences on me as a writer. I stumbled away from Glen Duncan's literary fantasy/horror novel with a deflated ego, thinking it so magnificent there might be no hope for me ever achieving such mastery over mechanics and plotting and style. Barnes's novel had the opposite effect. For as brilliant as I found his prose to be, it was wholly inspiring and encouraged me to read all the more closely as if to divine new insights of the craft from its pages. Perhaps this reflects more on my own state of mind than on inherent instructive qualities from either book, but either way I emerged on the other side of The Sense Of An Ending changed, and for the better, as a writer and, I think, as a person. I can't recommend it enough.(less)
Nestled between laborious descriptions of a family which, with one exception, is deserving of heavy scorn, are some interesting and almost beautiful i...moreNestled between laborious descriptions of a family which, with one exception, is deserving of heavy scorn, are some interesting and almost beautiful insights to be unearthed in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. These insights aren't exactly subtle, the thematic element of the book is born on the cover and in the title: the exploration of what it means to be free, the price inherent in that liberty, and the overlooked hazards of exercising any free will.
Franzen frames this discussion around a tale of the Berglunds, Walter and Patty and their kids Joey and Jessica. Reminiscent of a book I read a couple years ago, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Freedom starts with a kind of protracted prologue outside the perspective and voice of the rest of the book that, in some ways, establishes the end point before the beginning. It's like a literary colophon that, try as I might, I can't quite grasp the significance of. The last thing a ponderous book like Freedom needs is more exposition. Since this part of the book seems to establish the character of the principals before the point-of-view sections from Patty, Walter, and Joey slowly erode some of those early preconceptions (though not always), it seems almost as if Franzen has made his own job more difficult than it needed to be.
Part of the problem is that Franzen doesn't seem to have much respect for his characters, nor for the audience to accept them and their repellant bevy of flaws without overloading on the extensive familial backstory. The prose wanders around, vaguely gesturing at the point off on the horizon, filling the characters up with pathos and stereotype as well as reams of sexual and interpersonal trivia as if the latter could somehow override the former and achieve functional well-roundedness. I was struck throughout that nothing that happens in the book—self-spoilering prologue notwithstanding—is in the least bit surprising. Characters all behave exactly as you would expect them to based on their archetype and, more to the point, the outcomes of their behavior leads to scene after scene of predictable consequence.
Which is not to say it isn't interesting, because as I said, somewhere in all this piling of superfluous detail and commonplace melodrama there are some intriguing conceptual asides and notional musings. The angst for American "freedom" and its associated, prideful name-bearing travesties may hint at why Franzen perhaps detests these characters more even than they tend to detest themselves. The showcase digressions into population control, environmentalism, conservationism, politicizing movements, consumerism, celebrity, democracy, and altruism are all compellingly expressed. I don't know that I mean I wish this were an essay instead of a novel, only that I wish the novel that props up the essays was as interesting on its own.
My overall opinion is that I wish this book had a little more heart and soul. It comes across a lot like Walter's exhaustion- and drug-addled outburst of a speech late in the book: bitter, resentful, overstaying its welcome toward the end, perhaps well-meaning but coldly focusing too much of the blame on the humanity without ever really trying to find the necessary sympathy. As a result, it's left as no more than it seems: an angry rant from a lonely soapbox.
Audiobook Aside: The performance on the audio of the book by David LeDoux is pretty great. His reading, even of the prose, is acted with genuine and appropriate inflection which makes it a joy to listen to. The only problem I had was that occasionally LeDoux attempts a dialect or regional accent to—I'm being generous here—varied success. None of it is bad necessarily, just sort of un-called for and unintentionally laughable at times. I don't rate the books based on audio performance, but I considered the book and I considered my experience listening to it and I have a feeling that had I tried to sit down and read this novel myself, I wouldn't have made it to the end. As a result, I'm glad in a way that I listened to LeDoux's narration as it allowed me to work my way through and remain reasonably entertained, even when the writing itself turned bloated and difficult.(less)
Both my wife and my mom have read and enjoyed plenty of Mary Higgins Clark books in the past. So when I scoured the bargain bin for low-cost audiobook...moreBoth my wife and my mom have read and enjoyed plenty of Mary Higgins Clark books in the past. So when I scoured the bargain bin for low-cost audiobooks to rescue me from a tedious commute, this one stuck out as a chance to catch up on an author people close to me enjoy but I have never tried before.
I think I can best summarize my feelings by saying I hope this is just a poor example of MHC's plotting and her other books are better.
The set up here is that a girl who was accused and acquitted (but not exonerated) of killing her mother and wounding her stepfather as a ten year-old child is given a gift of a house bought for her by her husband, twenty-five years later. That house happens to be the same house where the she grew up, the one where the shootings took place. Supposedly this woman (Celia Nolan) hasn't revealed the truth of her past to her current husband; her deceased first husband swore her to secrecy from the past she has tried so hard to escape.
Here's the problem with such an improbable, suspension-of-disbelief crushing premise: in any other genre of book, this would be a deal-breaker. There are coincidences and then there are odds-defying happenstances that define the phrase "truth is stranger than fiction." Fiction's rules are stricter because this kind of one-in-a-trillion chance, in the context of fiction, highlights the strings being pulled by the author. In a mystery novel, it makes the circumstances so highly suspect as to ruin the suspense.
Perhaps if it were just this fault, I could forgive No Place Like Home. But throughout it continually reeks of authorly intervention. Characters make spectacular leaps of logic as it suits the narrative, or respond to evidence staring them in the face with remarkable dimwittedness, also as necessary for the narrative's needs. As such, few characters are believable. Even Celia, who has the benefit of being the sole first-person narrator, can't come across as believable when the audience is privy to her inner monologue and rationales behind her often criminally stupid decisions. To me, this all just says poor writing.
I get the impression that Ms. Clark's problem here may have been a hackneyed premise that she couldn't let go of and forced into a finished novel despite it being flawed on the face of it. She's actually good at creating plausible red herrings and her pacing is impressively snappy (though perhaps some of that is due to the audiobook's abridgment), so with a different core idea I might give another one of her books a chance to see if this was a fluke.
Unfortunately, I can't find enough positive to say about this book to recommend it to anyone.
In a brief aside for the audiobook, the narration provided by Jan Maxwell is reasonable, though a few of her "guy voices" are just shy of comical. I did appreciate that the chapters matched up to the disc tracks (helped by the short chapter breaks, I'm sure), and each was padded by a few seconds of dead air that made pausing the player at natural stopping points much easier than other CD-based audiobooks I've tried. However, I don't modify ratings based on non-book aspects like production values for audiobooks, so while I thought this was a very good quality production, it isn't reflected in the low final rating.(less)
There's really no mincing around it, I really struggled to get through this book. I tore through the first entry in Veronica Roth's Divergent series i...moreThere's really no mincing around it, I really struggled to get through this book. I tore through the first entry in Veronica Roth's Divergent series in under a week. It took me just shy of three months to reach the end of Insurgent.
I compared Divergent to The Hunger Games in my review of that novel, but Insurgent is more like Mockingjay: full of irritating inter-character conflict, packed with a deconstruction of the protagonist that makes her suddenly unsympathetic, and paced so poorly that each chapter in the lengthy middle grinds by like each tick of an insomniac's alarm clock.
Essentially the entire—and I kind of hesitate to use the term—plot of Insurgent relies on poor communication between Tris and Tobias/Four. On one hand, okay, sure. These are two teenagers in love. Miscommunication is okay. Except they are constantly presented with opportunities, even mandates to clear the air and they refuse. At one point they are each forced to unburden themselves of the secrets they've been keeping and somehow still manage to avoid sorting it out. Perhaps the most annoying part of this is how frequently Tris considers telling Four what she's thinking and then flatly rejects the notion with variants of this rationale: "I'd tell him what I'm thinking, and I know it would make everything better, but I just can't." Eventually this deficit of logic (recall, too, that Tris is supposedly Divergent toward Erudite as well) simply makes Tris loathsome. Perhaps these flaws are supposed to make her more human, but they don't come across as flaws, they come across as stupid mistakes, mistakes that break the suspension of disbelief.
The culmination of all this comes during the finale, when Tris confronts Four about trusting her. "I am exactly who you think I am," she chides him, bitter that he is expressing doubt about her motivations. My eyes rolled around in my head. After all her fickleness, deceit, lies and erratic behavior, no one—least of all Tris herself—knows exactly who she is. For this to be her play to get a closed-off, secretive Four to accept her at face value is laughable. Of course it works, because it has to.
Beyond the mushy character drama, we also have the problem of the rest of the story. Too many side characters traipse in and out of the narrative, offering little, frequently dying in what I guess are supposed to be emotional hooks. Tris and company kind of float around, with things happening that are vaguely central to the arc that follows the aftermath of Erudite's hostile takeover bid. But none of the transitions between the scenes really make a lot of sense, none of the key events seem to propel the plot forward. This was a vague criticism in the first book as well, but at least the meat of the second act was the Dauntless training program which was interesting and exciting in itself. Here the central cast waits passively for off-camera characters to make decisions and occasionally strain credibility by inserting themselves into those larger conflicts. For me, that just made it drag, and drag. And drag.
And then suddenly I hit about the 85% mark (according to my Kindle stats), which is roughly Chapter 40. And, as with Divergent, the pace quickened, the action kicked into gear, and I was interested again. From this point on the book flew by. Yes, that conflict at the end between Tris and Four was laughable, but aside from that it was exciting and I remembered why I had been so excited to read this book. Moreover, these last seven or eight chapters reminded me that this could have been a fun book to read; the first certainly was.
Now, there is still the lingering problem of the glibness Ms. Roth applies to her violence. Even when Insurgent is at last opening up the pace and racing to the end, people are being brutalized and killed without much weight being applied to the act itself. Tris internalizes the grief about the results of violence at the end of the first novel (she spends a lot of time struggling with her parents' death in this novel, which is supposed to be part of the source of tension between her and Four, though it doesn't work) and she uses her outrage at the demise of others to spur her to action. And yet, the horrors of the actions themselves are not sufficient. There is a clinical air to the depictions of shootings, stabbings, fisticuffs, murder and other assorted mayhem that reeks of video game consequence. In this world, carnage is only significant if the person mattered to someone else, it seems. It's quite unsettling.
Lastly, two other observations. One is that the title of this book is referred to in-dialogue complete with a character giving a dictionary definition along with it. I guess my joke about these books being subtle hints for readers to love their reference manuals wasn't such a joke. The scene was so corny, I had to laugh. The other is that my suspicions about the truth behind the world building (I'm sure they were practically everyone's suspicions; they amount to (view spoiler)[a city in a bottle(hide spoiler)]) were apparently true. And that's kind of bad because it means the premise of this dystopian/utopian Chicago is fundamentally flawed, suggesting the whole series premise is flawed.
So I can't recommend Insurgent. The last few chapters do help turn around a very frustrating book, but not enough to truly salvage it. I certainly can't say I hated it, but there are too many problems within. At this point I'm on the fence about continuing with the next series entry. I suspect it will depend on whether this ends up being a trilogy (as in, will the next book wrap up the loose ends or not?); if so, I'll probably finish it out. If it's ongoing, I think I'll take a cue from the Dauntless: I'm jumping off here.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
There are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who te...moreThere are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who tells the tale in first-person present tense of a fragmented, dystopian society. There is also a progression that includes a dawning clarity of what the world they inhabit is really like, a coming-of-age tale intertwined with the science fiction trappings and more than a little violence in both. But Divergent isn't quite as direct of a parallel to The Hunger Games as, say, Battle Royale, it is more of a spiritual similarity. Where The Hunger Games might be thought of as kind of an action/adventure take on some of the same concepts that are present in Divergent, this book is more of a thriller/conspiracy entry into the young adult dystopian fantasy.
So I'll do my best herein to avoid drawing all the connections and comparisons to The Hunger Games. To me, Divergent is just the right kind of coattail rider in that it appeals to fans of the more popular (and earlier) series by filling that same narrative niche but it has its own perspective, its own world building and its own perspective on how such a society might look and what could come from it.
Divergent takes place in a future variant of Chicago, where society has been divided into five factions, each of whom organize their tasks and daily activities around a principle characteristic that they hold most dear: Abnegation believes in selflessness; Candor holds honesty as the highest virtue; Erudite value knowledge; Amity elevate pacifism; Dauntless hold courage above all else. Each child is born into a faction, where they stay and try to uphold the defining principle until they turn sixteen. At that point they are given an assessment test to see where their personality might be best suited and then are allowed to choose to stay with their families in their birth faction or switch to align with the results of the assessment.
(As an aside, it struck me as funny that the book almost seems to have been written with the idea, "Let's make a story that shows young readers how awesome thesauruses are!" That's not a criticism, really, the faction names are good words to know, it just made me laugh.)
Enter Beatrice. Abnegation by birth, she struggles with the faction's insistence on forgetting the self, but fears the prospect of abandoning her family. In spite of her society's adherence to the mantra "faction before blood," she knows it would crush her parents and her very Abnegation-like brother if she abandoned them. Then in her assessment she gets a curious result: inconclusive. The test giver describes her with an unfamiliar word, along with a dire warning never to reveal it to anyone: Divergent.
A conflicted Beatrice doesn't know what it means or what she is supposed to do. At the last minute she chooses to switch factions (this isn't a spoiler, although I'll refrain from revealing where she transfers to; it would be a very dull book if it chronicled the initiation process in Abnegation) and the majority of the book describes her initiation into the new faction, her inner turmoil over her decision, the fear she retains over the test results, and the frightening, possibly dangerous new Divergent label she carries.
I will say here that I really enjoyed this book. Roth's pacing is rapid and her protagonist is likable, flawed and has a clear voice. Some of the supporting characters are less well developed and harder to identify with, though a few (mostly the ones who matter) are nicely rounded. The revelations here don't come all that quickly, Ms. Roth seeming to prefer to pack them all in at the end, which is breakneck and tense. This is not to suggest the book is dull or pointless before this point, but the development of the characters and the world takes precedence for about 75% of the novel and I get the sense that the deliberate tempo through the first three-quarters will be welcome as the series unfolds since the situation the characters are left at just before the drop-off cliffhanger ending seems to not leave much room for additional background on the world or the principals.
A couple of small nitpicks: there is a certain morbidity to the book in that by the end the body count of significant characters gets pretty high and there is a bit of casualness to the violence that I wasn't all that crazy about. Also the central romance is less effective than in other, similar books. Thankfully there is no love triangle to speak of but the relationship between Beatrice and her object of affection lacks that "root-em-on" element that other authors have been better able to capture.
And then the larger complaint: I don't know that I fully buy the premise of the dystopia here. I'm willing to overlook a lot of the questions I have about the whats and whys of this fictional society because Ms. Roth simply doesn't reveal enough about the world's history or the social constructs that prop it up to make a determination about its plausibility. But I see a potential for great narrative disaster in forthcoming installments if she doesn't manage to inject some believability into it at some point. The fact that young members of the society can (even if its considered somewhat rude) switch factions carries a number of implications that aren't addressed well enough here to determine if they hint at a grand social experiment gone awry or a core social structure that is doomed, even at the conceptual level, to failure. It's not a fault inherent in Divergent, because this book skirts the issues, but it is potentially problematic down the road, and I hope Roth has a clever plan in place to make it pass the smell test when revealed. I suppose it might be possible to continue to avoid the issue and never reveal how it all came about or what (might have) gone wrong. But there are enough hints throughout this volume to suggest that won't be her approach and I wish I could say I was more confident that when all is explained it will still permit suspension of disbelief.
Still, this is a very good novel, tons of fun, a quick (if not blistering) read and a truly effective launch into a new series that had me picking up the second book, Insurgent, before I had even turned the last page so I could continue reading about Beatrice's exploits right away.(less)
Jessie just graduated from high school, and she's on a road trip to Las Vegas to celebrate before she has to head back and figure out how to transfer...moreJessie just graduated from high school, and she's on a road trip to Las Vegas to celebrate before she has to head back and figure out how to transfer her admirable grades but poor status into a college education. She's still reeling from the recent loss of her boyfriend, Jimmy, but when she ends up at a blackjack table next to a mysterious stranger, Russ, who helps her win big, she begins to question if it's time to move on from Jimmy at last.
But something about her new suitor isn't quite normal. And more importantly, there seems to be a sinister element present in Vegas, one that is focused on her. Before Jessie can begin to suspect Russ she's dragged suddenly and violently into a reality she had no idea ever existed. A parallel world where the rules are different, one where Jessie's counterpart, Jessica, has just upset the balance of things in a big way.
Witch World is the first volume in a new YA series by Christopher Pike, an author I've read a bit of due to my wife's affection for his work. Occasionally Pike has produced stories I quite enjoyed but I'm sad to say that Witch World wasn't one of the better examples.
The central issue I have with the book is that it feels too much like an early draft, something that needs a heavy editor's hand to crystalize some of the muddier aspects of the world building. There are simply too many points where the book isn't internally consistent or misleading information about Witch World is given to the reader just to set up a "shocking" revelation later. And while the premise is interesting, there just isn't enough to distinguish it from obvious reference material like The X-Men and any number of parallel worlds fiction (Narnia, The Matrix, Alice In Wonderland, Phaze, etc).
The worst part of this is the way in which the world-building information is presented is almost exclusively in long, expository dialogue sequences where one character basically story-tells to another while they sit and do nothing else. These parts do some interesting stuff with alternate histories, and in fact it is the tenets in here that earn the book its extra star, but the presentation is so clumsy and lifeless that it takes the inherent intrigue of re-casting historic events in a new context and makes it tedious.
Another thing I didn't care for in Witch World was how often I just didn't buy in to Pike's narrative. Jessie/Jessica is sort of a bland protagonist/narrator, but near the end she has a drastic, sudden shift of personality that isn't earned and rings incredibly false. Several characters are 100% superfluous (a couple even completely disappear from the book about a third of the way in, to no discernible effect on the rest of the book) and a lot of the detail about both Witch World and the nature of witches is scientifically ridiculous or poorly realized such that things end up happening just "because WITCH WORLD, y'all."
To be clear, the central story is interesting enough and I kind of wanted to enjoy what was going on, but there was too much about the way the whole thing was put together that I didn't care for. And on a very serious note, there is one part in particular that drove me up the wall: Jessie, drunk and sexually charged, begins to get amorous with a man and at one point makes a remark about eschewing a condom because she's too lost in the passion of the moment to bother. This is in a young adult book? Really? Look, I get that the whole "condoms will ruin the moment" concept is a real concern, especially among the sexually inexperienced. But I think Pike owes his target audience better than legitimizing the (false) notion that safe sex trumps emotional connection or fulfilling fervor.
And while I'm at it, I should note that the language in Witch World is annoyingly crass. I get that plenty of teenagers and young adults use crude language and I don't have a problem with books that depict dialogue with an air of authenticity. But Pike here seems to hide behind f-bombs to convey emotion rather than make it feel real of its own accord.
I don't recommend Witch World. It has a kernel of interesting ideas buried inside it, but it gets too caught up in unnecessary details, is too lazy in presenting the world the characters inhabit, and lacks enough emotional hook to get a reader really invested in the story.(less)
When I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest i...moreWhen I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest in the creepy stories of King's early work was part of an effort to deal with the anxieties I labored under. Books were safe, salvational, and though titles like It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary were terrifying, there was something about them that I could confront where trips to the Halloween store and VHS copies of horror films were overwhelming. I read a lot of King's work between the ages of about 12 and 19, basically everything he published under his own name (I think the only Richard Bachman work I've read is The Regulators) up through 1996 (the only major novel release from that time period I skipped was Rose Madder). Since then, I've drifted from King's work, with a few exceptions like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing.
The reasons for me branching out don't have all that much to do with the quality of King's work (although the Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne era found me not really loving what he was putting out toward the end of my obsession there), and more to do with the fact that I no longer needed to prove myself capable of conquering literary fear and I transitioned to getting my chills and thrills from a long back catalog of horror movies while my reading preferences drifted into epic fantasy and other genres. Eventually my fascination with all sorts of macabre stuff faded along with my sense of invincible youth and the prospect of gaining entertainment value from death and terrestrial horror (regular humans doing despicable things, as seen in trash like Hostel and Human Centipede, perhaps influenced by similar subject matter in the less effective King novels around the time I stopped lining up for each new release) so I never really went back to the Stephen King well. And admittedly a big part of my inability (or unwillingness) to keep up was tied to the copy of The Dark Tower IV Wizard and Glass, which came out so long after I had finished the previous entry that I had trouble keeping up and frustrated me.
11/22/63 then is the first novel I've read by King, then, since probably 2000, and there are two key factors that did it: time travel and JFK. I don't think it mattered who wrote a novel that incorporates these two elements, I would have been intrigued either way; the fact that it represented an opportunity to re-visit an old favorite author was just a happy coincidence. So I picked up a copy of the 850-page brick that is 11/22/63 and re-acquainted myself with Mr. King.
The first thing that stood out to me—something I had forgotten—was what an easy, natural storyteller King is. His prose isn't jump-off-the-page spectacular, but he has such a way of drawing the reader along through even his epic tales that it never feels like you're reading a near-thousand page monster. He's particularly great about doing this kind of baldfaced foreshadowing thing where he doesn't allude to the significance of an early event, he plainly spells out that it matters, but he doesn't connect the dot right away, instead circling it in yellow highlighter so that the tension mounts as the chapters fall toward the front cover leaving the reader anxious to discover why that particular event matters.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher who stumbles across a sort of wormhole in the back of his friend Al's diner that he can pass through and come out in the same spot only in 1959. Each time through the portal, the world in 1959 is reset, but the effects of Jake and Al's actions in the past can have ripple effects so that when they return to 2011 (always two minutes later than when they went in, no matter how long they stay in the past), things may be different. Initially, Jake tests this theory by saving a family doomed to a horrific fate he knows about from a janitor pal at the school he teaches in, and though he is successful, he realizes there is sufficient uncertainty in the outcomes due to the oft-cited butterfly effect. But Al is convinced that the risks are worth it for one big intervention, one key opportunity to improve the past and create a better future: Stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet Al is dying of lung cancer and his final attempt sees his illness progressing too rapidly for him to make it to 1963, so he implores Jake to take up the cause. Thus begins the main thread of the narrative where Jake travels to the past for a four-year stint in which he is determined to find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop his plans. Under the guise of his past (King refers to it often as The Land of Ago) alias, George Amberson, Jake returns twice, once to stop the janitor's fate and check the outcome, and once to push all the way through to 1963 (if necessary) and do whatever it takes to prevent the death of the president.
The principal antagonist in the story is what Jake (and King) refer to as "the obdurate past," which in the world of 11/22/63 means that the past resists efforts to change it. And though Jake/George is determined to succeed in his mission, the obdurate past requires careful planning and patience to execute any sweeping ripple effects. As Jake's time in the early sixties drags on, he makes his way through by carefully manipulating the details he knows about, betting on sporting events to provide cash, lying smoothly to most everyone he meets, and he begins to sort of fall in love with the simpler times of Ago. Then, he falls in love with a woman, Sadie Dunhill.
The threads of Jake's existence in the past begin to twist themselves together, propelled along by that not-foreshadowing trick, the careful pacing squeezing tension deliberately like a snake slowly wrapping itself around prey, only tightening uncomfortably at the moment when it is too late. Sadie and George (Jake) have a cheer-them-on kind of romance, though George's secretiveness threatens their happiness, you see the bond they share working behind the scenes in what has got to be Stephen King's best depiction of love and tender romance that I've come across. Of course, this is Stephen King, so an ominous cloud hangs over them throughout, further dragging readers through the pages wondering how it will all work out.
There is an awful lot to like about 11/22/63, from the clever but simple mechanics of his time travel, the fun fanservice-y tie-in with his earlier novel (and one of my favorites), It; even the portrayal of life in the 60s through the lens of a modern man is impressive. Jake himself is a likable character, full of self-doubt and occasionally self-importance, but with a sharp wit and a not-too-schmaltzy big heart.
Late in the book there is a point at which the mounting tension hits a break point and King makes a specific decision that sets the stage for the dramatic climax and it was here that I remembered the other thing about Stephen King: he really struggles to find endings that leave readers—or at least me—feeling satisfied. I've wondered for a long time if King's books tend toward the epic in length because the author doesn't really want the stories to end, that he has more fun creating the worlds than making them change. If you've read a few of his novels, you can start to recognize where this process begins and King tends to make a particular decision that will define the context for the final push to the end and in 11/22/63, the point comes at just past the three-quarters mark in the 842-page book, (view spoiler)[when Jake's association with shady bookies catches up with him (hide spoiler)].
From that point on the book is not quite as delightful, and the event comes across as an obvious writer-tool to set up a race against the clock to try and avert the assassination. I didn't hate the turn the story took, but I felt it could have been executed more subtly or at least in a less formulaic fashion. Another side effect of this choice is that a book that has been... well, not exactly light-hearted, but at least fairly upbeat until the turning point. From there, the last quarter of the book passes by under a grim, dark shadow. I can't quite decide if this is an effective note to hit or if it feels uneven, though I lean toward the latter. There is something off-putting about the hasty final chapters that doesn't quite spoil the experience of the whole thing, but left me with a sense that at some point King decided the party just needed to end so he shut off all the lights and screamed, "Get Out!" It's not a bad ending, it's merely one that falls short of the promise shown in the first half. For a book that I loved for that long, to end with sort of a depressing sense of, "Yeah, sure, okay" was a disappointment.
(view spoiler)[One thing I did appreciate about the ending is the way that King—without stuffing it into your throat—points a spotlight on the fact that while it's easy to find people who bemoan the present, who wistfully speak of "the good ol' days," to even get the sense from reading a daily news site that things are tough all over, modern society has a lot going for it. There is a hard-to-spot undercurrent of hope in the bleak closing chapters which has no bearing on Jake at all, but says something larger about the way that we view the past and the way we might be best served when looking at the future. I liked that. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of a lukewarm sense about the end, I will say that it shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book. Stephen King may not be my favorite author anymore, but he remains a master storyteller and this book is a showcase for what happens when you give a great storyteller a great story to tell.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
What a strange, gripping, melancholy little book. Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel comes with a fresh premise that unfolds in an unexpectedly intim...moreWhat a strange, gripping, melancholy little book. Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel comes with a fresh premise that unfolds in an unexpectedly intimate way: the Earth's rotation is decelerating, an effect that comes to be known as the slowing. At first, the only observable change is in the number of hours of daylight and night. Eventually the slowing has other effects as well, causing changes to the atmosphere, to the tides, to the ability to grow crops or support animal life. And yet, despite the dystopian science fiction set up, this is not a book that fits so neatly into a genre.
The Age Of Miracles is detailed from the perspective of Julia, an eleven year-old girl who is old enough when the slowing begins to recognize the significance of the changes but is also busy dealing with normal—and sometimes more important—middle school issues: bullying classmates, fragile friendships, changing bodies, the early hints at romantic connections. Julia frames the facts of the slowing with the day-to-day struggles of her parents, who don't always get along very well and of her isolation among her peers and the accompanying loneliness. She struggles with a change in attitude from her best friend, Hannah; she battles to work up the nerve to talk to the boy she has a crush on; she worries about her weary grandfather.
Ms. Walker does a remarkable job in weaving the fantastic elements of the slowing in with a sort of routine coming-of-age story that results in something that is primarily the latter but given enough freshness by the former to never feel overly familiar. The sense of the unknown that lies behind the root cause of the slowing adds an ominous atmosphere to a time that already feels ominous for most kids on the cusp of, if not mental, physical adulthood. The twin facets of Walker's prose work in tandem to create an almost deliriously gloomy atmosphere.
In a way, I loved this book, but at the same time I found it very oppressive. It's relentlessly somber, as is Julia herself, and the few moments of hope and happiness don't serve to buff the edges off the grim tone but rather to highlight how sad and depressing it is as a whole. It's hard to really fault the book for this, I think it is a very intentional choice on the part of the author and it's done so well that even though there are no overtly tragic moments within, I found myself emotional and exhausted by the end of the short tome. Sometimes it's good to just listen to a sad song and let it sweep you away. The thing is, I don't think that for the most part people choose sad songs as their favorite songs.
Which is why I feel rooted in the middle ground in regards to The Age Of Miracles. It's sweet and sadly beautiful, certainly admirable and something I don't regret reading at all. But I cannot identify the way I feel about it with anything resembling gladness or enthusiasm. It is, undoubtedly, a very good book. However, to recommend it to people I feel would be disingenuous, like something I would do out of spite. Perhaps for those who find themselves in the mood for a sad read, this is the perfect book. For those looking for some escapism or fun, well, there is little to be found here. (less)
An unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictmen...moreAn unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictments on love and, particularly, marriage are cast. Yet these observations and astute, hot-knife blows on the impenetrable institution are so coiled and twisted on themselves that they wrap back around to something like a terrifying celebration of the act of union. This set up could easily be applied to Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut, but here Gillian Flynn takes a different track, speeding off in a forking direction that is thrills and genuine mystery where Ross's approach is convoluted and laden with digression.
I much prefer Flynn's book.
Gone Girl follows the twin narrators of Amy and Nick Dunne, their spiraling and often contradictory tales leaping off from the day of their five-year anniversary in which Amy is found to be missing from their troubled home in Missouri under what appear to be suspicious circumstances. Signs of a struggle, an afternoon interrupted. Nick is concerned, worried, uncertain and fearful. He is also lying to the police. He is the most unreliable of narrators, skimming important details both to the authorities and to the audience. At almost precisely the halfway point, Flynn rips the mask away from the narrative and sucker-punches her readers in the most delicious, sado-masochistic way.
This is a blistering read, let's not dance around it. A not-slight volume that my laborious reading annihilated in a couple of days, I found it impossible to get away from. I read whenever I could and when I could not, the book sat on my mind like an oversized centerpiece on a tiny, wobbly card table. For 95% of the voyage through these pages, I was in love with Ms. Flynn's cruelly compelling creation.
And then. Oh, and then. I blasted Mr. Peanut for Ross's indecisive, indulgent conclusion. Gillian Flynn again swerves the opposite direction, building, building, hauling the reader along by the lapels until suddenly and vindictively dropping the reins and cutting to black. It is the short story ending to the consuming epic, written either out of a lack of true resolution or to send book clubs into riotous disagreement, a puppeteer's finale of defiance and verve: I dare you to fill in the blanks! You write the epilogue, sucker!
It isn't a broken ending; it's not a cheat or a failure. It's just unsatisfactory to the point that I groaned, "Nooo!" This isn't a fling-it-across-the-room conclusion. It's a, "why oh why couldn't it be what I wanted? It was so good up until then!" I wanted something brutal, one final gotcha, even a cheat would be better. I wanted Defending Jacob's shattering end. I got Raymond Carver's premature exit. At least Carver usually had the courtesy to keep the beginnings short so as to avoid allowing over-investment by his readers.
I'm sitting here, a few minutes from finishing, feeling somewhat betrayed by Gone Girl but finding it impossible not to still sing it's praises. This is a razor blade of a book, beautiful and deadly to pre-conceptions, caveat emptor. The writing is so sharp, so delicious and full of pointed insights, delightfully flawed characters, twin protagonists you both love and loathe, a wonderfully portrayed setting and so many thrilling moments. Here you have a textbook thriller: It thrills, it chills, it delights in it's malevolent way. I was positive this was a top-shelf book, a five-star with a bullet nail-biter. And then the end.
Not everyone will loathe the conclusion, I'm certain of that. This is a book worth reading even if you suspect you may share my dismay at the closing chapter (which I reached and then eagerly turned to the next page looking for what I assumed was the coming zinger, only to find it just... over). You have to know, you have to get there so you can find someone to talk it over with. Let's start some conversations with "Can you believe...!?" Let's just sit for a minute afterward and shake our heads lightly, "Oh my god. Wow. Just wow." Whether those are the exclamations of disbelief and disappointment (me) or admiration and giddy awe (you?), it deserves to be experienced. Bravo—I hate you, Gone Girl, but—bravo. (less)
There's a point I reached in my reading of Cannery Row where I flipped to the back and noted the tightly-margined pages only counted 120 or so, and it...moreThere's a point I reached in my reading of Cannery Row where I flipped to the back and noted the tightly-margined pages only counted 120 or so, and it made me sad. John Steinbeck's tale of a place and time, filtered through the experiences of a cast of people in a meandering, semi-linear narrative snapshot is one that I wished would go on a bit further. I suppose the beauty of Cannery Row could be in the way it doesn't wear out its welcome, but it was so descriptive and transportive that I found myself lingering on it, taking longer to read each page than even my usual slow reading requires so I could stay in the Row.
It's possible that part of my affection for the novel is that I live in Northern California, close enough to Monterey that I can visit in a day and still return home. I've vacationed there several times for longer stretches; I genuinely love the area, and did so before reading Steinbeck's book. Reading Cannery Row then is like seeing a well-made documentary about your hometown or discovering an old diary from a favored relative. I don't know exactly how realistic Steinbeck's depiction of Cannery Row during the Depression is, but I find that I like to believe that his portrayal of the area is at least spiritually accurate.
I suppose it can't be possible for it to be completely grounded in truth; Steinbeck's obvious fondness for vagabonds and drunks and whores probably doesn't mean that down-and-outers all have hearts of gold. Still, the world that is presented here, fantasy or not, is one that I completely fell in love with. Steinbeck's ability to describe and conjure is startling. He doesn't rely on literary gymnastics like Vladimir Nabokov, nor does he simplify to the point of relying on mere suggestion like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Instead, Steinbeck achieves a kind of homespun poetry that lacks pretension but is, in its own rootsy way, very stunning. It's also funny, which was something I didn't expect.
Take, for example, this description from Chapter 30:
"The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of an individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product."
There isn't much of a plot to Cannery Row, the loose connection of vignettes regularly returns to the band of hobos who live in The Palace Flophouse, led by Mack, who try throughout to do something nice for the neighborhood benefactor (of sorts), Doc, who runs the marine biology lab on the Row. Throughout, Steinbeck weaves shorts about the couple who move into the abandoned industrial boiler, Lee Chong who runs the local grocery and operates almost exclusively on credit, madam Dora Flood and her prostitutes at the Bear Flag Restaurant, and other less frequently appearing characters who all serve to give Cannery Row its distinct, homesick-inducing personality.
By now I suppose it's redundant to say I really loved this book, but I think any work that gave me a new appreciation for a place I already thought had a certain charm, that made me want to visit again right away, that made me laugh and that simply made me happy that I could step into its world even for a short time is one that deserves to be called out as not just good, but especially remarkable.(less)
A note: this review presumes a familiarity with the events in the first book of the series. If you don't want that (excellent) book spoiled for you, d...moreA note: this review presumes a familiarity with the events in the first book of the series. If you don't want that (excellent) book spoiled for you, don't read further.
At the very beginning of this year I wrote about Glen Duncan's fantastic, literary take on the oft-visited vampire/werewolf genre. That book, The Last Werewolf was so engrossing, so unexpected and so unbridled in its use of language and unflinching look at humanity through the lens of hyphenated human (sub- or super- or non-, for example) it kind of altered what I thought was possible in a genre novel.
A part of the reason why The Last Werewolf was so amazing was the conjurer's skill Mr. Duncan displayed in bringing his protagonist, Jacob Marlowe, to vivid life. Not to mention his murderous sadism at bumping off his first person narrator at the end of TLW and switching voices to the charming Talulla Demetriou. It was a one-time trick, a masterful bit of subversion, and it worked expertly in TLW.
However, TLW also concluded with a lot of loose ends, which at the time I said, "I suppose I could find a tiny bit of fault with what is either an open-ended series of questions making the ending a touch incomplete or else wide open for a sequel..." So I was eager to tear into Talulla Rising.
Initially, I was disappointed. It became clear early on in TR that the strength of The Last Werewolf was Jake Marlowe, and Talulla comes across in parts of TR like a poor man's Jake. She regurgitates several of his patterns of speech and was clearly affected strongly in her short time with Jake in terms of outlook and worldview, but her backstory is already (mostly) told in TLW and that which isn't already familiar must be revealed by events as they unfold. Which means this is less of a character study of a seen-it-all nihilist who just happens to be a werewolf as it is a continuation of the plot and story elements left over from the previous novel. The Last Werewolf then was a novel about a character, lively and literary, that just so happened to weave itself around a weary literary genre. Talulla Rising is simply a genre novel, albeit a very good one.
It seems important to stress that I like vampire/werewolf stories, so I liked Talulla Rising. But I want to be clear that I would recommend The Last Werewolf to anyone, because it's an amazing piece of fiction first and a great genre book second. With the sequel, I have to say if you don't like Underworld or Twilight or Buffy because the fantastical elements just aren't your bag, I can't in good conscience say this book will hold your interest. And in a way, that's a shame. Duncan perhaps could have done a bit better to give Talulla her own, unique voice, something of a new perspective. He does fairly well at making her not sound like an extension of Jake, losing the world-weariness that Jake wore like a familiar shirt and bringing the feminine perspective to Jake's crushing wit. But still, it's hard not to get the sense that the appeal of Jake was really an appeal for Duncan himself, such that he wanted to indulge the writer's prerogative to stun readers with an unexpected death but also wanted to keep him alive through his quasi-mouthpiece(s).
But again, what needed to be said by and about Jake Marlowe was covered by the first book so, lacking a distinctive new voice and without his character to draw on, Duncan is left with no choice but to turn to the plot and the strength of TR is that it reveals how well-crafted the story was in The Last Werewolf, even if it played second fiddle to the development of the character. There are some noticeable similarities to a few other vampire/werewolf crossover stories (and even non-crossovers; this is not a subtle homage to the genre, it wades right into the established conventions and gives them just enough of a tweak to keep them interesting). But I found none of this off-putting. A few characters that are significant here in TR were part of the scenery in TLW so even though I read the first book less than a year ago I still had a bit of trouble placing each one, but TR is self-contained enough to fill in the blanks where they appear so it never got confusing.
I will say that a mild critique I have is that occasionally Duncan's gleeful trysts with language, while exciting, obfuscate the meaning when he applies them to, say, action scenes. There is a point near the climax of TR where a sudden rescue is written in a very clever way but it took me three or four read-overs of the same page to understand what was really happening. In dialogue, internal monologue and exposition this can be a very effective way to present difficult or mysterious elements with appropriate tone but in action I prefer to have a clear sense of what is happening.
Still, I enjoyed TR quite a lot, even if it isn't quite as amazing as its predecessor. One other minor note is that I was surprised to find since there is a third novel planned that makes TR a second-in-a-trilogy and for a middle entry it has a pretty upbeat ending. It's interesting that the tragic conclusion occurred in the first novel and not the second. I don't mind: I think TR's finale is satisfying and appropriate in tone, but it did pleasantly usurp my expectation.
My final takeaway is that if you like stories with fascinating characters, no matter what you should read The Last Werewolf. If you don't like the horror elements, leave it at that. If you don't mind or enjoy the genre bits, go ahead and pick up Talulla Rising, bearing in mind that there is a noticeable shift from book one to book two. As for me, there's no way I can't read the third book now. I have to know what happens next.(less)
Now and then I like to choose a book to read that maybe I wouldn't usually try, just because it is one that means something to my wife. Her and I have...moreNow and then I like to choose a book to read that maybe I wouldn't usually try, just because it is one that means something to my wife. Her and I have pretty divergent tastes in a lot of things, but I would hope that if I found an amazing science fiction novel that I thought she might be able to enjoy, she would humor me and give it a shot. So likewise from time to time I ask her what book she would want me to read. Emily Giffin's Something Borrowed is, for the time being at least, among her very favorite books so when I asked which of her books she'd recommend, this is what she selected.
Something Borrowed follows Rachel, a straight-edge lawyer living in New York, and her best friend from childhood, Darcy. Darcy is a force of nature: beautiful, casually successful, engaged to a great guy and full of the self-confidence unique to the chosen few who seem to figure out early that life is a game and the deck is stacked. Next to Darcy, Rachel is mousy and doormat-ish, but like anyone who has ever had a self-absorbed friend, she accepts Darcy at face value. Then, on Rachel's 30th birthday, she ends up alone with Darcy's fiance, Dex, and they sleep together. At first, Rachel is horrified by her mistake, but as she timidly navigates the reconciliation with Dex, she finds that he wants more and she's surprised to discover she does, too.
Eventually Dex and Rachel begin a full-fledged affair, fall in love and struggle with their twin betrayals of Darcy. The majority of the book is spent on this back-and-forth internal monologue where Rachel presents a series of anecdotes that gradually paint Darcy as a steamroller, an egotist, deceitful and more than a little petty. She struggles with her feelings for Dex, with her feelings for Darcy and faces some hard truths about herself in the way she lets herself get pushed around at work (in a job she hates, no less), the way she passively experiences life and the way she frames everything about herself against the backdrop that is Darcy.
The core of the book hinges on the following premise: make The Other Woman seem sympathetic and justified. To a certain degree this works, but I think perhaps not in the way Giffin intends. For one thing, the Darcy character, up until the end when Giffin pushes her so over the top to drive home the point, never really seems like she's all that bad. Sure she's self-obsessed and domineering, but those traits are also framed as if they've been present in her since elementary school so the negative impact they have on Rachel ends up feeling more like Rachel's fault for not being honest about how that makes her feel more than justifications for betrayal. I suspect Rachel is supposed to be in self-discovery mode throughout the novel, but it really comes across more as if she's discovering the truth about a friend she's known for over twenty years. Perhaps this is intended to be revelatory but the effect to me was just to make Rachel look like an unobservant patsy.
Mostly it all feels very contrived, as if Giffin were trying her hardest to create this monstrous character in Darcy but constantly had to pull back to make it believable that this venomous wretch would actually have friends (plural), or even one (singular) friend. Meanwhile, Rachel waffles and grovels and commiserates and acts flighty, never really seeming all that likable. It's a strange sense because I don't have a problem with protagonists who are flawed, complicated people and I don't have a problem with antagonists who are less than pure evil, but where I struggled with the characterizations was in the way that I got a clear sense of what the author wanted me to think, but I simply couldn't reconcile it with what I actually took from the narration.
Granted, at the end Giffin stops splitting the middle and drops all the main players into neat little buckets, creating a pat ending to a novel that was, up until that point, happily complex. I think what I resent most about Something Borrowed is that I would have liked to read the book that was coming through the pages, but someone needed to tell Giffin that it's okay to keep the point-of-view characters a little out of arm's reach and to let the bad guys in books be mostly good. I would have enjoyed a story that didn't always feel like it had to apologize for the bad behavior of the main character and had to add a twirl-ready mustache to the conflict sources. A more nuanced, more neutral approach to all the characters and their relationships would have made for a less clear cut but far more fascinating novel.
Still, I enjoyed Something Borrowed a lot more than I maybe expected to. This is a first novel so I was able to forgive a few of the rough edges like sketchy characterizations of some peripheral players and the persistent brand name dropping which I think is supposed to add an air of authenticity but comes across like product placement somehow. I do think that my wife's suggestion that upon finishing this book I would be compelled to run out and read the follow-up, which I guess is told from Darcy's point of view, called Something Blue, is not accurate. More than anything I think a book containing a bunch of snooty rich New Yorkers who (without irony) say they're going to "summer" instead of "vacation" and who think the core of a person's being can be defined by how they reacted to news of Princess Diana's death is the kind of book I can tolerate once in a while, but not in a back-to-back kind of way. But, I won't say that I'll intentionally exclude Something Blue from my to-read list.(less)
To say that Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book is kind of like leveling the same "accusation" at the Harry Pot...moreTo say that Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book is kind of like leveling the same "accusation" at the Harry Potter books. This is a big, grand adventure book featuring remarkable children as protagonists and as such it will appeal to middle-school readers, but I think there is plenty here to draw in adult readers as well.
The story concerns Reynie Muldoon, an exceptionally bright young orphan who really wants nothing more than to fit in. He answers a peculiar ad in the newspaper and finds himself taking a series of curious tests and meeting a small band of other, similarly exceptional kids: Sticky Washington, a nervous, timid boy with an incredible head for knowledge; Kate Weatherall, perhaps the most resourceful bucket-toting girl he's ever met; and Constance Contraire, a world-class stubborn grouch who completes several of the tests simply by refusing to cooperate.
Thus assembled, the team then meets a strange man named Mr. Benedict, who tells them an alarming tale about the efforts afoot at a secret Institution nearby to control and influence the world via mind-control techniques broadcast through television and radio signals. The kids' mission then is to infiltrate the Institution, learn what they can, try to stop the plot and keep in contact with Benedict via Morse code signals.
It's the kind of set up that I think appeals more to the younger audience than the adults, to whom it may sound a little corny and convoluted, but the strength of Stewart's writing is in his ability to help older readers like myself recapture some of the youthful wonder of storytelling, back when every plot contrivance was fresh and new. I found myself not dismissing the notion of a hastily-assembled team of children secret agents as implausible, but embracing them the way I might have when I was ten or eleven years old. This is the same effect that J.K. Rowling achieved in the early Potter books, to force suspension of disbelief through the power of imagination.
Despite drawing two parallels to Rowling now in four paragraphs, I do want to point out that The Mysterious Benedict Society may feel at times like a gadgety/spy analog to the high fantasy of Harry Potter, this book isn't quite as good as the early books in that other series. Part of it is that Stewart needs his action to take place predominantly at The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, but, frankly, the Institute (and even the mission) isn't as interesting as the recruitment and the hideout of Mr. Benedict. One thing that Harry Potter's stories did was make the principal setting—Hogwarts—this amazing place that you really wanted to visit. Having Benedict Society's action take place in a mostly unpleasant place that the characters don't want to be means the middle (once they begin their mission) drags in comparison to the beginning. Eventually the pace picks up around the two-thirds mark and the book becomes much better toward the end, but there is a reason everyone and their pet hamster has read Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone but this book is far less well known.
Still, I really enjoyed the book. It's big and meaty (and probably could have been even bigger, if Stewart had wanted it to be so), it has extraordinarily likable characters, crisp pacing, some fun nods to puzzle solving and love of obscure trivia. In fact, this is a book that very much celebrates the cerebral; unlike a lot of hero tales aimed at kids, the protagonists in Benedict Society survive and thrive by their wits far more than their hits, and I like the focus there.
I also can't get through this review without mentioning the absolutely wonderful cover and chapter art by Carson Ellis. Her work and style will be familiar to those who have enjoyed artwork done for the band The Decemberists, but the distinctive, whimsically old-fashioned feel to the art gives the book just the right touch of tone and really helped propel an already swift read even faster toward the back cover.(less)
William Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly intere...moreWilliam Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly interesting that while I don't read a ton of legal thrillers (and I'm not sure this counts as one), those that I have read don't really seem to cross with mysteries very often. In Defending Jacob, there is a distinct mystery at the core of the book, though it is framed in the context of the trial proceedings and not principally within the initial investigation.
The book follows Andy Barber, Massachusetts ADA, who is called when the body of a young boy is found murdered in a woodsy park in his own Boston suburb of Newton. Initially there are no suspects, but as the investigation proceeds, two possible perpetrators emerge. One is a convicted sex offender and the other is Andy's own son, Jacob. The District Attorney's office makes the decision to pursue Jacob as their suspect, pulling Andy off the case and setting off a sequence in which the largely circumstantial but nevertheless compelling evidence mounts against Jacob.
The central thrust of the plot is the twin spires of the case. One is the draining effect it has on the Barber family, with the secrets it unearths, the questions it raises and the way it re-casts the entire family in the eyes of the community. The other is the mystery of the case itself, the particulars and the "what if" elements: what if the jury convicts? What if the actions of the parents are called into question? And mostly, what if Jacob actually committed the crime, regardless of what the jury decides?
Landay uses a narrative structure that has the majority of the case being recalled by Andy some time after the initial trial and investigation as part of a grand jury hearing in which the weight of suggestion is heavy that there are events that take place outside or after the initial trial that are as, if not more, significant than the trial and its outcome. In these sequences, mostly told via court transcripts of contentious examination by Andy's understudy at the DA's office, the cloud of these events are palpable but believably obscured (for the most part).
What unfolds then is a series of examinations between crucial trial moments where the nature of family, fatherhood, belief in the inherent goodness not just of children but of your own actions are dissected, drawn out, examined, and re-defined. A central theme is the concept of nature versus nurture, of psychology and the revelations of genetics, as well as the definitions of self. There is a secret about Andy that affects (or perhaps does not affect) Jacob which casts a particular glow across the whole proceeding, paving the way for Landay (through Andy) to muse on the topic of which comes first: the murder or the murderer.
As the book artfully sets the stage with a languid sense of the reader not having the whole story but the tale being told compellingly, eventually the trial begins and the tension begins to mount. Landay paces himself so that what seems at first to be a meandering, thoughtful study of a family in crisis begins to ratchet up, the crescendo suddenly maximizing until the final 100 pages or so become so engrossing that a book I felt confident in my ability to take my time with out of nowhere became a page-turner so engrossing I had to stay up ridiculously late just to finish.
And oh, the finish.
But I'll come back to the finale in a moment. First let me pause to discuss the few flaws the book has. Primarily, I found it frustrating that the question of genetic predisposition toward violence is never satisfactorily pursued. Particularly, Andy, as the narrator, seems to occasionally hint toward a confession about his own, personal, sense of morality or his possible predilection to violence. A few times he seems to act as if he believes that he does have a draw to anger and/or unthinking action, which could easily include violence. But the exploration of this topic feels incomplete, even in a novel that is unafraid—admirably so—to leave questions unresolved. The other small but nagging annoyance is that Landay (or Andy, though I don't think you can write this off as a character element) repeats and rehashes certain topics to drive home their significance rather than expanding the discussions. This is particularly noteworthy when the topic of those genetic or nature-based propensities to do harm to other comes up, but also he revisits the concept of the "unknowable other" several times without really diving into what that means or what that says about the characters and events that take place. It's a missed opportunity because it could really enhance the narrative, but Landay leaves it on the mantle, unfired. There are a few other minor examples as well.
A large concern is that the central framework is a fabrication. Obviously the narrator and the ADA cross-examining him in the transcript interludes know more than the audience is privy to up until the closing chapters. In almost any other hands I'd probably cry foul and declare it a cheat, but I think Landay does as good a job as I've seen in making this work, in not having it feel terribly artificial, at least during the initial read. I admit that after the fact it was so glaring that it buffs some of the luster off the polish of the book, but I can't say that I protested during the subterfuge. It's a weird pseudo-flaw then: a contrivance that works until you become part of the informed, at which point it reveals itself as a cheat, though one that is forgivable if you can admit how exhilarating it was to be blissfully unaware.
My veiled hints refer to the book's final pages—literally the last twenty—which flip the central tenets of the story to that point once and then just as you are in the midst of the mindwarp provided there, the whole novel is re-cast as the brutal, unflinching and pointedly unresolved final sequence unfolds. I can see how some people are going to read this and want to fling the book across the room. I checked mine out from the library so that wouldn't have been an option for me. But it was never a danger anyway because I was among those who wanted to immediately find Mr. Landay and shake his hands for having the stones to drop such a pitch-perfect ending onto an already gripping book. It's messed up, yes. It's hard to deal with, sure. But it's so effective, I just can't imagine it ending any other way.
In the end, I highly recommend Defending Jacob to people who like thoughtful family dramas, people who like thoughtful crime or legal dramas and people who can say they don't mind being duped as long as it's for a worthy cause. I liked the book very much and I can't wait to find some other people who've read it so I can discuss it with them, because the real power of the novel, I suspect, will be in the ensuing conversation.(less)
The third of the initial trilogy in what I understand is to be a time- and genre-spanning series is one of those strange books in which I'm oddly torn...moreThe third of the initial trilogy in what I understand is to be a time- and genre-spanning series is one of those strange books in which I'm oddly torn about my final opinion. Which maybe suggests I kind of liked it and kind of didn't, but that's not the case at all. It's a more nuanced indecision, sort of like asking "Did I really, really, really like this book or did I love this book?"
The short version is that it doesn't matter, of course. Everything that was awesome about Mistborn is present here, except maybe the heist aspect but honestly once done it didn't need rehashing (perhaps that's why all the Ocean's Eleven sequels have been awful). The trilogy's second book, The Well Of Ascension, was what it needed to be and it succeeded though couldn't really live up to the first. And I'd even add the postscript qualifier to that assessment that Ascension is a better book once you read Hero Of Ages.
So why am I waffling on a minor bit of pointless distinction between four stars and five stars?
Here's the thing: Mistborn is a 647 page book that feels like a short story with how quickly it races by. Well of Ascension is a 763 page book that has to bridge the gap between the dynamic ending of the first and the incredibly ambitious plot of the third. It's a little slower, but it's never, ever bloated. Hero Of Ages is the only one that felt a little excessive at times.
As I said, it has a plot that is downright brazen and mercifully Brandon Sanderson's exquisite plotting and planning means that he's one of the best finishers in fantasy—if not in all of the fiction—I've read. The ending of this book is so good, not just on a single book level but in its ability to tie together promises made very early on in Mistborn. Put it this way, the series started off with the heroes facing down a god, and Sanderson doesn't scale back from there, he scales up.
What I think threatens to hold me back from giving this an unqualified recommendation amounts to nitpicks. Occasionally the dialogue feels a bit too modern American. If the prophecies and identities of certain characters were supposed to be hidden and secret, they weren't hidden all that well. Certain inter-character relationships stagnated a little. Sazed's crisis of faith felt a little over-explained. Spook had too many chapters considering his contribution to the ending was significant but not, to my mind, in proper balance to its importance. Some of the new allomantic metals introduced late in The Well Of Ascension went largely unexplored.
None of this is important. None of this makes Hero Of Ages a bad book or even much of a worse book than its already high bar.
But this is where I see-saw on how to cement this book in whatever weird mind-canon my reviews represent: is this simply the great book that it is, deserving of top praise, or is it a well-received book that I think could have been just a little bit better?
I realize the answer lies inside The Hero Of Ages itself. Sazed struggles to find a perfect religion, something bulletproof to hang his confidence upon. What he must discover is that it is not infalibility in the eyes of the beholder that makes a thing successful, it is achievement of intent. I think Mr Sanderson intended to write a truly awesome and original fantasy series, with a really great final chapter. And he did. So go read it.(less)
Occasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience an...moreOccasionally my forays into young adult or children's books turn up gems like The Island Of The Blue Dolphin, which transcend their target audience and manage universal appeal. Then there are those like Lemony Snicket's Series Of Unfortunate Events which are clearly, perhaps almost painfully, for kids. This isn't, I suppose, as harsh of an indictment of The Bad Beginning as it sounds, since it's only doing what it was designed to do. But the frequent vocabulary lessons—in this case meaning in-prose definitions of words that may not be familiar to young readers—can be pretty distracting for an older audience.
Additionally, this is a wisp of a book in which not terribly much happens: The Baudelaire children—Violent, Klaus and baby Sunny—lose their parents in a fire, are put under the care of their evil uncle, Count Olaf, and try to thwart a plot by Olaf to steal their inheritance. There are a couple of other minor characters here and there, but that's basically the gist of it. Granted, there are twelve other volumes to the series so between them all I suspect there may be a small handful of more complete novels, but The Bad Beginning seems particularly glib, almost unfinished.
I will say that Snicket surprised me with the resolution of the central conflict and the characters of the children are all likable and egaging. Plus the gentle dark humor strikes a tone that my ten year-old self would have really enjoyed so overall I can say that it was enough to make me think that at some point I might like to finish the whole series. However, they strike me as the kind of books that one might find in a family bookcase while housesitting for some friends or borrowing a cabin and read through in a sitting on a slow weekend afternoon. They don't feel like something I want to dedicate a lot of time to tracking down and acquiring.(less)
Here we go again on another Stephanie Plum... well, I was going to say "mystery" but that isn't really accurate, and I think I need to stop thinking o...moreHere we go again on another Stephanie Plum... well, I was going to say "mystery" but that isn't really accurate, and I think I need to stop thinking of this series as a collection of mysteries, regardless of where they're shelved in the bookstores. Let's go with "caper" instead.
Janet Evanovich's half-awesome, half-bumbling heroine is back, this time tracking down a beloved neighborhood candy store owner who skipped bail after a gung-ho cop booked him for carrying a concealed weapon. Now Stephanie's social circle is cross with her for sullying the reputation of a local saint and she still has to navigate her way through the parade of zany characters in her trademark falling-with-style panache. I've said in earlier reviews in the series that the plots aren't really the point here, these ridiculously readable novels are much more at home giving backdrop to the fun predicaments and set pieces Evanovich likes to throw at her hapless protagonist.
I was happy to see that Grandma Mazur, a force in Two For The Dough steps back and Lula, the sassy hooker-turned-fileclerk gets sidekick billing this time around. We also get to learn more about Ranger and Morelli and Stephanie continue their funny series of near misses—or maybe more accurately near hits. Plum still has about as much luck with cars as with men, she's witty and funny and likable as ever.
It's going to get old if I keep reviewing each of these books with the same caveats, basically reiterating how breezy and silly and fun they are while offering very little in the way of substance. But it's hard to have much more to say at this point. Three books in and we're still in "establish the formula" territory, so I don't expect much in the way of serious character development just yet. The questions I'm starting to ask are when is the formula going to wear thin for me? I suspect that if there isn't a bit of evolution to Plum or the growing cast around her by about book five (High Five to be exact), my moderate enthusiasm for the series is going to wane. These are reasonably written, fast-paced, escapist reads but there is only so much repetition that a novel-reader should be asked to endure.
I have the next two on my to-read list already. I'm not sure that the review of Four To Score will have much more to say than this or the previous one had. But if I'm still giving three tepid, apologetic stars to these by book five, I think I'm going to have to take a break from the series (at least) so I don't become an embodiment of insanity's definition.(less)
When I first finished Mistborn, I thought that I would rush straight into the second book in Brandon Sanderson's series. I even went pretty far out of...moreWhen I first finished Mistborn, I thought that I would rush straight into the second book in Brandon Sanderson's series. I even went pretty far out of my way to secure a copy of The Well of Ascension. But then, I hesitated. I read a couple of other books instead. At first I wasn't even sure why I seemed reluctant to dive in, but upon further reflection I realized that the problem was that I had loved Mistborn so very much that I was afraid a sequel might not live up to the expectations set by the first.
There is precedence for this, in fact. I read and loved Anne Rice's The Witching Hour years ago, then started book two, Lasher, only to literally throw the book across the room within the first few chapters, disgusted by what unfolded there. I never finished it and my opinion of the first was sullied. I don't even remember now what I liked about the first Mayfair Witches volume. Stephen King nearly lost me as well in the opening pages of The Drawing of the Three which followed the remarkable The Gunslinger with a seemingly devastating character event. I stuck with King through a couple more books, but the extended break I had to give myself before I could face Roland again put distance between me and the series, one I've never been able to recover.
I was afraid, in fact, that Mistborn, despite being an imperfect novel (no one is likely to mistake Sanderson for a literary genius), was so fun and so exciting and so right up my alley with even a completely satisfying conclusion that made the book wholly standalone, a sequel had the chance to undo that. I subconsciously wanted to give myself some time to just bask in the giddiness of having read a really good book. However, after a couple of weeks, I had to finally admit I had no choice. Knowing there were more adventures out there to be experienced with Vin and Sazed and Breeze and the crew, I needed to know what else Sanderson could come up with.
I'll say this right off the bat: The Well of Ascension is not as good as Mistborn. In a way, I'm not sure it could be. Mistborn is a novel of discovery, of revealing, while The Well of Ascension is a novel where much of that exploration has already occurred. By this point we're familiar with Allomancy, we understand what Mistings and Mistborn can do, we know some of the nature of Obligators and Steel Inquisitors, and the Final Empire is a place we've been before. So instead, The Well of Ascension has to be about happenings, about events that take place within that framework set up so well by the first novel.
And in part, that's the core flaw in Well, because the events that Sanderson chooses for this book are grand in scope and impact but limited in intrigue. The book chronicles the aftermath of Mistborn, where the survivors are now tasked with keeping the central setting of Luthadel secure now that everything has changed. Doing so is not going to be easy, of course. The power vacuum has made Luthadel and its fledgling government a target, and one by one three distinct armies lay siege to the city. The new government struggles to determine how to deal with the impending invasion(s) while working through the growing pains of any new leadership. Meanwhile, a more ominous and less tangible threat begins to take form, and the walls start to close in on the cast of still-wonderful characters.
Part of what I loved about Mistborn is that it was so gripping: full of tension, unpredictable and full of a kinetic energy that kept the pages always turning. The Well of Ascension is successful in its way because it maintains the tense atmosphere (I'm inclined to say it is even more taut, with the stakes raising from grim to hopeless to utterly bleak by about the halfway point) and remains just as unexpected as the first. Where it falls short of Mistborn is that, without that sense of newness that made the first volume so exciting, Well grinds down at times, especially in the first third, to something that isn't ever close to boring, but is—to butcher a phrase—put-downable.
This is something that eventually goes away, and the final quarter of the book is ridiculous almost in how breakneck fast it moves. I mean, you know it's got a no-brakes ending when the "epic journey foretold in legend" doesn't even begin until there are less than 150 pages left in a 700+ page novel. The early parts of the book have their moments of triumph, but one does have to acknowledge that by comparison the book can feel very weighted in terms of significant events toward the back. This was true in Mistborn as well, but it felt less like a flaw because the slow burn to that point was full of so much wonder. Here, that wonder is replaced by some compelling character arcs, including several fascinating new additions (and subtractions) to the core cast, but developing characters just isn't quite as much fun in a fantasy setting as developing the world, so the odds were kind of stacked against this book. I think, perhaps, this is what I feared all along during those weeks where I saw the book sitting on my shelf, but I was reluctant to open it.
But, I can admit when I'm wrong. Despite The Well of Ascension being not quite as amazing as its predecessor, it's inferior only by comparison to a book I adored. Which is to say, taken by its own merits, Well is a triumph in its own rights. The most impressive part about it, perhaps, is that it manages to be satisfying in spite of being an Act Two book. It's obvious by the end that we're going to need at least one more sequel to finish the tale (I happen to know now that there is a fourth book as well) Mistborn began, but where other series or trilogies might simply drop a cliffhanger on the reader, content to know that two books in most readers will be committed to at least a third, but The Well of Ascension actually has a real ending. It's not The End, true, but it doesn't leave you feeling like you're dangling, rather it neatly ties up the central conflicts it presented and then paves the way for the much greater conflict to come. Lots of people could learn from Sanderson about how to finish series books.
My final recommendation is that, if you read Mistborn, don't hesitate to start The Well of Ascension. It's a bigger book, in scale and size, and it's not quite as taut as a result, but you'll welcome the chance to catch up with these characters and a new excuse to revisit this world.(less)
I've been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast for close to a year now, hearing Brandon Sanderson talk about his writing process and taking advice...moreI've been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast for close to a year now, hearing Brandon Sanderson talk about his writing process and taking advice from him. What I haven't done is read anything he's written. I suppose Sanderson is most well known for being the writer tapped to take over the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan passed away. I tried WoT and it nearly broke me—after five and a half books—of ever wanting to read epic fantasy again. (Well, that and the initially good but increasingly awful Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind)
But last year I picked up A Game of Thrones and good ol' George R. R. Martin restored my faith in fantasy a bit, enough for me to suck in my gut and give Mistborn (and Mr. Sanderson) a try.
Boy, am I ever glad that I did.
It's going to be hard to talk about this book without gushing like a The Hunger Games fangirl, because I loved it so very much. The set up, while perhaps a bit overstated in the book jacket copy and some synopses I found online, is pretty refreshing in itself: A thousand years ago a hero of prophecy went on a quest to drive a dark force from the land. But instead of heralding an age of freedom and hope, that hero became a tyrannical oppressor, immortally ruling with an iron fist, segregating the populace into pampered nobility and downtrodden, broken peasant class.
In a way, then, this book isn't your typical epic fantasy. There isn't a lengthy, continent-spanning voyage. There are no prophecies to fulfill. There is no mysterious, plot-busting macguffin. That stuff has already happened by the time the book begins. Instead, this is more of a heist novel, full of political intrigue, elaborate schemes, subterfuge and grifts on top of grifts. But the setting is shifted to this semi-familiar fantasy realm and instead of your usual "it does whatever the author wants" magic to provide convenient escapes as needed, Sanderson has created Allomancy, a ridiculously well-crafted system of metallurgic-oriented superhumanity that, in practice, facilitates a very Matrix-like vibe to the action, of which there is plenty.
The struggle of the principal cast to execute their plan to overthrow the evil Lord Ruler combined with this clever magical construct might, perhaps, have been enough to create a gripping tale by themselves. But Sanderson isn't content with that. He also creates a rich and detailed world, revealed only in part through the central location of Luthadel, and then populates it with at least a dozen memorable characters, plus plenty of compelling backstory for each. I absolutely love it when it seems like authors dumped every good idea they ever had into a single work and it brims over with fresh concepts, new twists on old ideas and fun little details.
On top of this, Sanderson writes with an assured voice, capturing the distinct personalities of his two main characters (the lovable, mistrusting protagonist, Vin, and the master to Vin's apprentice, the flawed but inspiring Kelsier) in their respective point of view chapters. Even more impressive is that he is able to inject life and vitality into secondary characters, both with and without direct POVs, such as Sazed, Vin's wise and surprisingly capable steward, and Elend, Vin's nobleborn object of affection. Most impressively in the writing is Sanderson's ability to block out and describe action sequences in a clear, exhilarating fashion. Many writers struggle to get the pacing and detail just right to convey combat (especially supernatural combat) in a way that doesn't leave the reader confused and Sanderson comes as close as you could ask to creating a high-octane special effects sequence from a movie in your head. It's really a treat to read, especially since he applies this same cinematic flourish to every corner of the book, from stuffy noble balls with their political subterfuge to training sessions to exposition about the history of the empire.
There are maybe a few extremely minor quibbles (Sanderson seems overly fond of the word "maladroit," for example) but they don't matter. The only thing better than reading this book is knowing that there are two sequels waiting for me. I adored this book and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes gripping, exciting, character-driven stories with strong writing. I have book two on my To-Read list already and it's going to a challenge for me to select anything else to read next.(less)