One of the things that is really pleasing about the Temeraire books is how, while I see some smaller plot developments coming, Novik sets up huge unex...moreOne of the things that is really pleasing about the Temeraire books is how, while I see some smaller plot developments coming, Novik sets up huge unexpected reversals of stakes, and does it so far in advance you have to admire the craftsmanship as well as the effect. This book goes in quite an unexpected direction from the last one, and takes us out of the Napoleon tunnel vision we might have been settling into.
I admit I was trepidacious when I realized the characters were going to Africa. Some otherwise charming historical fantasies I've read have fallen down when they've taken their Western European characters to the Middle East or Africa. It's very difficult to write believably period characters who stay likeable, while being honest about colonialism. To be honest I've seen authors fall into Orientalism and patronizing cliché more often than the reverse. Novik, though, did an admirable job, I thought. She depicted the ignorance and misunderstandings of the Europeans, gave enough imagination and empathy to our heroes to allow them to understand other perspectives, didn't manufacture or force common feelings, forgiveness, etc...and of course, it is incredibly cool to see an African superpower in a fantasy novel!
Novik really thinks through the implications of her worldbuilding, ethically, economically, historically -- and this book is not the first time she's taken a potential hole or question in her setup straight on and made it plot. It's satisfying and well-done.(less)
I've only read a novel by Murakami before, and I found his declarative prose style worked better in short stories. Some of the stories did feel rather...moreI've only read a novel by Murakami before, and I found his declarative prose style worked better in short stories. Some of the stories did feel rather slight. That moment of turning, of transformation, on which such subtle character-driven fictions rely, was often quite understated; while occasionally gross lyrical flights can seem an overblown attempt to sell an underfed story, here sometimes the understatement worked against the stories, leaving you feeling little movement or effect from having finished a tale. Sometimes, though, despite not feeling entirely arrived, I did feel I'd enjoyed the journey.
My favorites, I think, were "Honey Pie" and "Landscape with Flatiron". In their quiet ways, they seemed true, right through to the end, and the images woven through made them lovely, too.(less)
Obviously, this book is an exemplar of a certain time and cultural hegemony. If you can't swallow a little casual racism, chivalric chauvinism, and a...moreObviously, this book is an exemplar of a certain time and cultural hegemony. If you can't swallow a little casual racism, chivalric chauvinism, and a lot of implicit colonialist/supremacist attitudes (White Savior ho), it's not for you, and I can really respect that.
However, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. The first-person narrative was droll and self-deprecating enough to blunt the impact of the almost videogamey levels of protagonist exceptionalism, and there was enough interesting, actually vaguely scientific worldbuilding involved in, for instance, the culture of the Green Martians that they didn't come across as the one-for-one standins for stereotyped Earth cultures I'd feared to find. I found the Sola/Tars Tarkis subplot really interesting and compelling. The adventure, although occasionally a little jerkily episodic and inconsistent (uh, isn't that a lie? and why can't you read that guy's brain?) was pleasingly swashbuckling, and I liked the details of Martian life, the classic airships and faithful Martian hound...not to mention some real sensawunda moments.
As for the titular Princess, well, she does spend a lot of time as a damsel in distress. (And some of that distress is Burroughs hilariously contriving to break his own Green Martian worldbuilding in order to follow formula, sigh.) She does at least talk a good game occasionally, and nominally is involved in Science, but she is a little disappointing. (And that's not getting into the Men are from Earth, Women are from Mars comedic miscommunications.) She's not as weak a character as I might have feared, but when I reflect that Mina Harker; intelligent, stalwart and competent even swathed in chivalrous effusions from the menfolk; was written twenty years before, I could have done with a little more active agency from Dejah Thoris. The secret is to strangle the big creepy green guy with the chain, Princess.
Bottom line: fun adventure, cool ideas, antiquated notions, not as cheesy as I'd expected. I may actually be tempted to listen to another Burroughs novel in future!(less)
The mystery plot was a little tighter in this second book in the Medicus series, In general the plotting was quite well done: little bits of foreshado...moreThe mystery plot was a little tighter in this second book in the Medicus series, In general the plotting was quite well done: little bits of foreshadowing, necessary information and so forth were woven quite invisibly into the fun, interesting setting and the characters I care about. I especially appreciated some of the tension Downie created between Ruso and others even when I was chafing desperately against it -- so it must have been good!(less)
It's hard to rate this because it was stellar, lovely in every sentence and page, but also so very brief. I am astonished to see the page counts, and...moreIt's hard to rate this because it was stellar, lovely in every sentence and page, but also so very brief. I am astonished to see the page counts, and would like to see the wordcount sometime to convince myself it isn't a novella.
It's primarily an adventure story, and excels as such: like a good adventure story often does, it makes you care about the people as well as the plot. The classic idiosyncratic friendship of the gentlemen and their very different bonds with Filaq are well sketched and convincing. The novel briefly and vividly transports the reader to a very cosmopolitan past, an age and place not familiar to most readers in English. For this, for its philosophical flourishes, its beauty of line, its humor, its swashbuckling, and its elephants, I loved it.
Audiobook note: Andre Braugher did a good job, especially with the dry humor.(less)
I've finally gotten around to finishing off the Harry Potter series. I was probably dilatory in this mainly because I found the last few book...more3.5 stars
I've finally gotten around to finishing off the Harry Potter series. I was probably dilatory in this mainly because I found the last few books very disappointing.
I find this one a little hard to judge, because like any book that has achieved giant success, it ends up being about more than itself. Does this series convey some Harmful Messages to Our Young People? Well, yes. Quite apart from all the kids-in-danger and not-telling-trusted-adults objections I've heard to the earlier books, I am not mad on the idea that everyone meets their True Love by the age of 17. But I think all that stuff may be too much burden to put on what is, after all, pretty much a YA fantasy book. I'm not sure it's fair to put some extra societal standard pressure on it just because the series was a runaway success.
So setting all that stuff aside, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this last installment. The characters were not as whingingly immature (aka, devastatingly accurate depictions of teenagerhood) as in the last few. While there was a certain amount of stumbling around on the part of our heroes, the eventual plot reveal was compelling and surprisingly tight after seven sprawling books (obviously this is a woman who knows how to outline!) In the end, the plot managed to hit several necessary/foreshadowed points, fulfill some suspicions and expectations, surprise me, and yank on my heartstrings. I was really pleased with some beloved secondary characters' arcs. In short, the last third or quarter made the book for me, and I finished listening with a complacent heart about the series as a whole. Pretty impressive, given my previous disaffection.
That's not to say that I was completely happy: I did feel like certain inter-character squabbles were repetitive (from previous books), a little undermotivated, and generally pumped up to add conflict to a slow section. I have some niggling concerns about the nature of evil and how many of the characters, despite a few notable exceptions, are ugly outside if they are inside, and vice versa. And perhaps most importantly, I do feel like Rowling has gotten "too big to edit", which isn't necessarily her fault -- even if you're sweet and unaffected by success, that success will intimidate people into silence or sycophantism -- but this book definitely had hundreds of pages of flab that could have been cut to the benefit of the whole.
Short version: Despite my misgivings and its occasional flab, it made me smile and cry, and put a nice bow on the series.(less)
The kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here...moreThe kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here, allowing him to paint a detailed picture of the fire and the individuals' stories. The structure, starting at the fire then jumping back to give lots of background, is somewhat teasing, but the background does eventually pay off as the events and their political aftermath unfold.
I got quite attached to the dedicated foresters and plucky citizens of the tale, and even found myself engaged by the portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, which I did not expect. Come for the amazing stories of survival and inferno, stay for the perspective on the history of the American West, the Forest Service and conservationism!(less)
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed:...more3.5 stars
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed: convincingly human. I loved the way different kinds of beauty affected the plots and the characters: without fanfare, the theme was woven everywhere. I couldn't even count the ways the theme returned. It was, dare I say, quite beautiful.
However, I just can't get around Howard. Now, I'm going to admit to my shame (since I'm an English major) I haven't read Howard's End, and I understand that On Beauty refers to it. Perhaps I'm missing something crucial and elegant and intelligent about Howard. But I found him not only repulsive but a failed character. The only trait that inspired my sympathy - his inability to just enjoy things - seemed so overdrawn I had trouble believing such a person could exist. (And I do know academics.) That trait seemed to make him an allegory instead of a man. Other attempts to lend depth and humanity to his character, give him a history, rang false to me. I couldn't believe in him, and he was a poisonous cancer on all the other characters* who I did believe in, and liked, even when they were unlikeable. And he was the mainest main character, with the most screen time. His actions just made him more banal (big points to the character who told him that) and I kept waiting for a train or a meteor to hit Howard and erase him from these poor people's lives. I waited for a plot device to detonate in his face.
I'll admit that I am sick to death of white male middle-aged protagonists with midlife crisis, as well as white male liberal arts professors, let alone New England ones. So Howard hit several sore points, but I am willing to be convinced: I read this book in spite of Howard (who was obviously ticking a lot of boxes from his first chapter, but seemed otherwise inoffensive) and loved so much of it, in spite of Howard. But Howard was Howard, a vast pustule of Howardness, and the end did not redeem him, or really pay off for me. If the book was trying to make a deeper point about this kind of character, or his pervasiveness, it didn't make that point with me.
The book was sprawling, emotionally involving, ambitious, intensely crafted. Characters like Kiki and Zora were exquisitely well-observed, and made my heart ache with their truth. There were even details about Howard that were unusual and winning at first. The huge number of viewpoints were enlightening and fairly well juggled. They even performed an important function: contrasting, over and over, outsides and insides. The book had many telling moments of really interesting discomfort about race, class, and nationality, even if the explicitly political parts of its plot seemed less insightful and occasionally flabby. Ultimately, while I don't regret any of the time I spent on the book, it didn't gel for me, and I think Howard is in large part why.
*There was only one other character I remember really disliking without understanding (V), and I kept waiting for a section from her viewpoint that would explain her better than the sort of shallow sociological gestures I could make myself and Howard made for me. I felt the book was a little unfair to her.(less)