I've been reading Joe Lansdale for a long time. I haven't been there since the beginning, but I discovered him around 1994 and found a lot of reasons...moreI've been reading Joe Lansdale for a long time. I haven't been there since the beginning, but I discovered him around 1994 and found a lot of reasons to come back to him. He has a very natural storytelling style, he tells stories with great theme and atmosphere, and his voice doesn't disappoint. Not all of his stories are big hits (Lost Echoes and Leather Maiden weren't as good as Sunset and Sawdust), but even when they're a miss, they're still enjoyable reads.
All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky has all of those characteristics, but it's not his best work. I think part of it is because it's a YA book, and I expect that it's unfair to judge this book for what it isn't, but when I know how a Lansdale story reads when he's running all cylinders on nitroglycerine, it's hard not to wish that this story could have been so much more.
A lot of the appeal of reading Lansdale is the way he unflinchingly looks at injustice and intolerance. It's not always a comfortable read, but it's usually an enlightening one, and it's more effective when he's writing with adults in mind. He doesn't have to be careful with his language, he doesn't have to worry about the violence being too graphic, and he doesn't need to ask himself if he's going too far. With this book, though, he did, and I feel like it suffers for it. It's as if he's trying to get that same point across without offending anyone in the process, and as it is, the antagonists come across as being far too gentle for some of the atrocities they commit.
The story is about three young kids in the 1930s who have lost their parents to the dust storms in Oklahoma, and how they wind up making their way to Texas. The reasons for their departure are pretty clear -- there's nothing left for them there with their parents dead, their houses in foreclosure, and their farms decimated -- but how they get from Oklahoma to Texas is the real story. I wouldn't want to give too much away, but rest assured, there's enough Southern Gothic weirdness here keeping the story moving. The events in the story feel a little random, but the structure follows that of the Odyssey, where the main characters are on a journey that takes them through many trials, so I doubt that this was Lansdale flailing away at the plot. I think he was making a conscious decision to bounce the kids around from one event to the next.
Overall, the story was good, and I can see it being a good book for YAs (the themes will generate discussion, and the lessons to be learned from the story, though a little too obvious, are important), but it's hard to recommend it to adult readers. If you have a hankering to try out Lansdale's style, I'd recommend starting with Sunset and Sawdust; it will make everything else of his you read pale by comparison, but it's a damn fine story that should engage all readers of fiction.(less)
I was really taken in by American Born Chinese, especially in the way that the author, Gene Luen Yang, played around with a single story told through...moreI was really taken in by American Born Chinese, especially in the way that the author, Gene Luen Yang, played around with a single story told through four different perspectives. It was a pretty ingenious way of telling the story of his main character, and while it wasn’t necessarily original, it helped to drive the meaning of the story home. Level Up is another of his stories, and while it doesn’t have the same sort of method of telling the story, the meaning behind the story is just as effective.
In Level Up, Dennis Ouyang is an Asian-American teenager who is coming to terms with his passion and skill for video games, contrasted with the expectations his father has for him. His father’s death spurs his motivations, in both directions, but when he starts to falter in what his father expected from him, some strange things begin happening which push him in the right direction. How he manages to reconcile his feelings for both is interesting, and each time you think you might have figured out what Dennis is going to do, Yang plays with the characters a bit more, keeping you engrossed in what’s happening.
Ultimately, Level Up isn’t going to get the recognition that American Born Chinese received. It’s a good story, with a layer of depth to it that’s almost unexpected, but it doesn’t have the same kind of oomph that ABC had. I think it’s partly because ABC has a premise that’s a little more universal than Level Up has. Even though both stories are about teenagers coming to terms with their identities, I think ABC focuses more on family, while Level Up is a little more focused on video games and medical school. It’s a bit more limiting in scope, and I can’t help but feel that that’s why the book doesn’t feel as significant.
Anyway, it’s probably unfair to compare the two books, but ABC won the National Book Award, so it’s hard to ignore that potential when looking at Yang’s other works. I see that he has another graphic novel I haven’t read — The Eternal Smile – and I’m sure to read that one, as well. I don’t know that I will expect any of his other works to measure up to ABC, but I do enjoy his method of storytelling, and the depth that he adds to his characters.(less)
Yep, The Help. I heard about it when it came out, and know a lot of people who liked it, but I just wasn’t all that interested. I avoid non-genre fict...moreYep, The Help. I heard about it when it came out, and know a lot of people who liked it, but I just wasn’t all that interested. I avoid non-genre fiction, book-club books, and bestseller books (mostly) by practice, and The Help was all of those things together, so there wasn’t much there to make me want to read the book. It wasn’t until I saw the trailer for the movie and realized what the story was about that my interest finally got piqued. Somehow, I had managed to miss out on the most important point — what the story was about — and almost missed out all together on the book.
I probably don’t need to tell you anything about the story, now. The book was a runaway bestseller, and by now you’ve probably seen the previews a hoopty-jillion times over, so there’s really no need for me to cover that this book is about a young woman from 1950s-era Jackson, Mississippi who takes on the role of collecting the stories of all the black maids from the town to reveal the social ills behind those roles of employer and employee (which were actually closer to master and servant, when you get right down to it).
There were a few things that were a disservice to the story, overall. For one, in order to illustrate the full impact these stories would have on the town and its social structure, the book had to be published, to there was never any real tension over whether or not the book would be completed. It had to be, otherwise a large part of the drama of the story would be lost. That’s not to say that Stockett didn’t write the story in such a way as for me to realize this; I was still hanging on with Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie as they waited to hear the news about the book. There was also one scene that served to prove to Minnie that Celia viewed her as a person and a friend more than she viewed her as a maid that was just plain random. I kept thinking that there were a ton of other ways for the author to create a scene where Celia had to come to Minnie’s aid than that, and as a result, I kept expecting that random encounter to come back up at some point later in the story (it didn’t). Finally, the story is told by the three main characters in alternating first-person narratives, but there was one chapter that was told from a third-person perspective, which just didn’t make any sense to me. I can sort of see why — the scene wasn’t seen from any one of those three characters completely — but there’s so much more of the story about other characters that’s narrated by the main characters as a “Guess what I heard?” anecdote that I didn’t see why Stockett didn’t do the same with that one chapter. It was jarring, more so because the voice of the chapter was so similar to the other characters’, anyway.
All that doesn’t change the fact that this is a very readable book, made so because of the characters. The protagonists were all working toward a great good against a large challenge, and it was very easy to sympathize with them because of that situation. Stockett did a great job of piling one hardship on top of another for the characters, to make their challenges even more difficult, which in turn makes the reader more supportive of them. And the antagonists were so despicable and so easy to hate that it was very easy to take sides in the battle. There was no moral ambiguity in the characters to muddy the waters of who the heroes and villains were.
When I first started reading the book, I was struck with how the author was trying to address a serious social issue that reflected the truth of race relations during that time through something as trivial as “The Help.” I understand that it reflected the truth of race relations at that time, but it seemed a bit pithy. Once the story really got underway, though, Stockett used real historical events to remind us that we might be reading a fictional story, but that the issue at heart was very, very real. It helped ground the story in reality, and remind us that we weren’t going to get through the story without some serious reflection.
I don’t know that this book really needs my recommendation for folks to read it, but I will say this, to folks who are like me and don’s usually read books like this: Don’t ignore it just because it’s popular. It’s serious, enjoyable, readable, and effective. And above all, it’s just a damn good story.(less)
There's something about a good YA book that makes it very moving. It's not just nostalgia for the adult readers, because the really good YA books touc...moreThere's something about a good YA book that makes it very moving. It's not just nostalgia for the adult readers, because the really good YA books touch on something that transcends that, and speaks to both younger and older readers. I think it has to do with truth, and the way in which we sometimes tell the truth by lying (such is the nature of fiction). In this way, Stargirl is one of those really good YA books.
The premise is pretty simple -- a new student at a high school is quirky enough to attract enough attention to become popular, but that quickly sours as the other students misunderstand her intentions -- but the storytelling isn't. In fact, the relationship between Stargirl and Leo, the narrator, is complex enough to take anyone back to the days of high school, when a simple, honest relationship can take weird turns that make it into something unnecessarily complex. That's exactly what Stargirl is, a bittersweet story love and loss.
What makes the story so good to read, though, is Spinelli's writing style, which is pared down and succinct. He presents the characters and the idea of the story plainly, but doesn't spare any emotion during his storytelling. In fact, it's easy not to realize that you're reading a book that's shorter than 200 pages, because the book has a powerful emotional punch to it. He even works the setting -- New Mexico -- into the story, almost as a character itself. In fact, I think Spinelli's characters are where he really shines, because you'll find yourself adoring Stargirl, sympathizing with Leo, and strongly disliking everything that conspires to work against them.
This book has received a lot of awards, and rightly so. I'd recommend the book to anyone, young or old.(less)
So, the series draws to a close with this novel, and true to form, Larsson took the same cast of characters (plus a few extra) and made a different so...moreSo, the series draws to a close with this novel, and true to form, Larsson took the same cast of characters (plus a few extra) and made a different sort of novel using them all. This time, he wrote a pretty good police procedural thriller that, to me, was far more interesting than any of the other books in that genre I've read. Granted, I haven't read that many of them, but still, I wasn't left wanting for more with this book. Other than the occasional episode of "Law and Order," I find police procedurals to be pretty dull.
This novel was probably the most difficult to finish, because (a) police procedurals are usually full of details, and (b) I've already covered how Larsson covers every teeny-tiny little detail of his novels in microscopic, clinical detail. Combine the two characteristics and you get a near-tedious presentation of everything that happens in the book. The book started out well -- it literally started right where the second book left off -- and then hit the doldrums for a few hundred pages before it picked up near the end, as the trial began. Interestingly, the trial itself doesn't take that long, but the detail is just right at that point. The author shifted from narrative to dialogue for much of that portion of the novel, and it increased the pace and readability of that part of the story. By then, it was smooth sailing through the end of the book.
I wish that Larsson had lived long enough to pursue this series. I understand that he had up to ten books planned out before his death, and given that he was writing distinctly different books with each novel, I would be curious to see where he would take his characters next. Surely a science fiction or fantasy setting wasn't too far off, right? Because that's what we would all really like to see: Salander in space.(less)
The pacing was good, and the plot was interesting, but I felt that Grisham failed his characters miserably by trying to force them to be what they wer...moreThe pacing was good, and the plot was interesting, but I felt that Grisham failed his characters miserably by trying to force them to be what they weren't. It's been over 15 years since I've read this book, but I'll never forget the scene where the federal agents, who had been infiltrating the firm for years, found out that one of their own had been feeding the firm information about what the agents were doing. They dragged him into a room, smacked him around, confronted him, and then said, "You're dirt. You're lower than scum, you dirtbag" (or something similarly mild).
Now, I found out later that Grisham prides himself on being a clean writer, and doesn't use profanity. Unfortunately, what the agents said didn't ring true to me. Would an agent really not say something more profane? I don't think so. I think in a situation like that, he would lose all self-control and say what was really on his mind. Besides, if the agents are going to beat this guy senseless, why hold back on the language, too?(less)
The second book in the so-called Millennium trilogy picks up right where the last one left off, more or less. It follows the main players — Salander,...moreThe second book in the so-called Millennium trilogy picks up right where the last one left off, more or less. It follows the main players — Salander, Blomkvist, and Vanger — and brings us up to speed on what’s happened to them since the mystery of the first novel resolved itself. It also takes a bit of a turn, with a new story developing that involves Salander, Blomkvist, and a criminal mastermind who goes by the name of Zala. It involves murder, intrigue, espionage, and adventure, much like a Bond film. And, truth be told, this sort of does read like a Bond story, though without the suave, debonair approach that Bond typically brings to such stories.
Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire gets off to a very slow start, and almost plods along at certain points as the author goes far off target and goes into excruciating detail about … well, nearly everything. He talks about what people do when they get ready in the morning. He writes about what kinds of furniture and appliance brands people buy for their apartments. He writes about the insects and worms that live in the dirt surrounding the buildings where the crimes take place. (OK, no, not really. But I’m a little surprised that he didn’t.) When he focuses on the story and the plot, the book sings as it zips along, but there’s just so much detail in the books that it becomes almost distracting.
I do find it interesting that the story has such a different feel than the first book in the series. In Tattoo, the book is a big mystery with a large cast of characters; in Fire, the book is more a political intrigue thriller, with a smaller cast of characters. I could be all coy and predict that the third book will be something different from these two books, but truth be told, I’m almost halfway through the third book already, and I can already tell that this might be the case. So I have to give the author credit for pulling off that sort of diversity in the series.
Still, the novel ain’t perfect. Tedium of detail aside, the characters are almost Koontz-ian in their perfection, to the point where I have to say that I don’t know people like this in real life. It has nothing to do with the situations they find themselves in; it’s more that I don’t know people who have the perfect answer to every question, and know all the right people, who have the perfect answer to the questions you couldn’t answer yourself. These are all moral, uplifting, smart, perfect people, and in the end, it’s difficult to read stories like that, because I can’t relate to the characters. It becomes a little frustrating, but once I get caught up in the story, I sort of forget about it all.
In addition, the story was a lot less interesting than that of the first novel in the series. This might be because the character development stopped to some degree (we find out much more about Salander, but Blomkvist is already a painted canvas), or because the idea of a political thriller is less interesting to me than a Gothic mystery. Either way, it took a little more dedication to get through the novel, which was a bit of a bummer. I figure it’s never a good sign to find that, while I’m reading one book, I’m thinking of another book I’d rather be reading.
Still, once it gets going, it’s pretty good, and once it gets on course, it keeps your attention. I just wish it had been able to maintain that sense of something new and fresh that was evident in the first novel.(less)
This book is a hard one to peg. On the one hand, it's a mystery; on the other hand, it's a police procedural; on the OTHER other hand, it's a thriller...moreThis book is a hard one to peg. On the one hand, it's a mystery; on the other hand, it's a police procedural; on the OTHER other hand, it's a thriller; and on the OTHER OTHER other hand, it's a political intrigue novel. That it's set against the backdrop of the world of financial journalism makes it unique, and that it's a compellingly readable story makes it worth the time to read. So it's not completely surprising that this is an "international best-selling novel," but to be such a hybrid of different genres, it's successful despite itself.
I say that because my biggest complaint about the novel is that it's almost clinical in its description of the minutiae of life of its characters. If you've ever wondered what it's like to live in Sweden during the deep winter, or what the typical drudgery of being a researcher is like, or what it entails to be a financial journalist, then this is definitely the book for you. Larsson covers in great detail all of these different aspects of life, which in part accounts for the near 600-page length of the book. While it gets a little tedious to see so much detail, it's still written in such a way as to be relatively fascinating, enough so that you're not going to be taken too much out of the story during these passages.
There were a couple of parts that seemed a little clunky, too. The main character has a daughter with whom he isn't estranged, but he doesn't see her often. She pops in right in the middle of the novel for about four pages, and provides the clue to keep the plot moving along. It was plainly obvious that she was only there for that one purpose only, and it stood out to me like a neon sign. There were also a number of references to authors and novels listed strictly for flavor, without being necessary to the plot at all, and I felt like the author threw them in there for recognition more than anything else. It wasn't that Larsson was going for his own recognition, as much as he was giving a shout out to his inspirations, but it was pretty clear that's what the purpose of the comments were. As I understand it, though, this was Larsson's first novel, despite having been a writer for years, so I can overlook some mechanical gaffes in the narrative. As compelling as the story is, it was very easy to overlook them, in fact.
And that's ultimately what I look for in the books I read: Story. This single novel has it in droves, with plots, subplots, and sub-subplots, peopled with likable characters with their own flaws, set against a historical backdrop in a remote, out-of-the-way place. What starts off as a single-minded plot becomes much more layered and involved, without it ever seeming contrived or forced. The good guys win and the bad guys lose, but the journey to see who's who, what drives the different characters, and the growth that they endure over the course of events will keep you stuck with the story, no matter how much you want to be doing anything else. The book may have a few flaws, but what works in it works so damn well that the flaws will hardly make a difference to you by the end.
By now, you have to have heard about this book. Now you just need to get out there and read it.(less)
So, if you read the back of this book, you get a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into. This is a collection of two long short stories, one th...moreSo, if you read the back of this book, you get a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into. This is a collection of two long short stories, one the story of Blockade Billy, a catcher for a baseball team that has been OMG ERASED FROM HISTORY because he did an OMG HORRIBLE THING, which was so bad that even he was OMG ERASED FROM HISTORY. Not literally, so much as the history books just didn’t mention him, but dang if you don’t get this sense of dread reading the story, waiting to see what this OMG HORRIBLE THING is going to be.
So, if you didn’t catch it from my comments up there, let’s just say that the payout doesn’t really live up to the expectations. I mean, the guy did a bad thing, but it certainly wasn’t an OMG HORRIBLE THING that would justify erasing his history — as well as the existence of an entire Major League Baseball team — from the record. I was expecting some Cthulhu-ian sort of thing, or some other sort of association that was just too disturbing or otherwise unbelievable to put in the history books.
Stephen King is known for creating a great setup, and then being unable to pull it off in the end (It), but in this case, it wasn’t really his fault. The buildup in the story itself justifies the end, though it still doesn’t make the story interesting enough to justify it being published by itself; it was the publisher blurb that raised the expectations too high. Interestingly, the other story in this book — “Morality” — was much more satisfying, possibly because the publisher didn’t make it some sort of OMG HORRIBLE THING story. Though the events described in that story are pretty horrible, more so than in the title story.
Like any Stephen King story, it will pull you along and keep you reading. Unfortunately, a lot of the stories King has written lately, the stories themselves just aren’t all that interesting to read. Check this one out from the library if you absolutely must read it, but don’t expect too much out of it. Maybe it will be a better experience that way.(less)
**spoiler alert** I’ve been a fan of Strangers in Paradise for a while, though it’s taken me a long time to get around to finishing off the series. Du...more**spoiler alert** I’ve been a fan of Strangers in Paradise for a while, though it’s taken me a long time to get around to finishing off the series. During that time, I’ve gone through the ups and downs of the relationships that bind Katchoo, Francine, David, and Casey together. This collection covers the final section of the entire story, and while I liked the way it wrapped up, I was a little aggravated with the way the author wrapped it up. That may not make sense, so let me explain, but be warned, the following comments will be spoileriffic.
Read further at your own risk.
Several years ago, my wife and I watched Monster’s Ball, and weren’t all that impressed with it. For one thing, the story forced the two main characters together by eliminating all the other people in their lives that would have prevented it: Halle Berry’s character’s husband was executed, and then her son was hit and killed by a car; Billy Bob Thornton’s son committed suicide, and then he committed his father to a nursing home when he tried to get in the way of the relationship. I got the same feeling off of the wrap-up for Strangers in Paradise. David was terminally ill; Casey was in love with David, but wound up being unable to have children due to her teenage anorexia (which, I should add, had never been mentioned in the series until now); Francine’s husband cheated on her, and then her brother-in-law was killed, meaning she was free to come to terms with her feelings for Katchoo; Katchoo agreed to have David’s child, and Francine had been having difficulty conceiving. So it made perfect sense for them to get together at the end of the story.
Now, it makes sense, and I have to give credit to the author for pulling all that together and making it work. I just felt like it was another situation where the characters were forced into a situation where they would finally work. And maybe that’s the point of both stories, that when people are meant to be together, the world will arrange for that to happen, no matter what else happens in their life. In one sense, that’s a sweet sentiment; in another, it’s scary as hell, since it means that everyone else in their lives is disposable.
I was glad to see the series finish with Francine and Katchoo together — it was really the only way the series should have ended — but then again, it would have been effective if the author had gone against what seemed to be inevitable. I imagine the SiP fans would have lynched him if he hadn’t, though.
Anyway, it’s definitely a series worth reading. I highly recommend it.(less)
I’m a big fan of James Hynes. He blends a lot of different themes to create what’s almost a brand-new genre, but they’re close enough to horror that I...moreI’m a big fan of James Hynes. He blends a lot of different themes to create what’s almost a brand-new genre, but they’re close enough to horror that I feel like I can just have fun reading, while they’re so well-written that I feel like I’m reading serious literature. With Publish and Perish and The Lecturer’s Tale, he crafted some subtle, atmospheric horror stories that made me almost giddy to read them. He veered a little out of his normal subject area with Kings of Infinite Space, but still managed to capture a subtly eerie feeling with the story, and I ate that one up about as quickly as I did the others. So I was thrilled to see that he had a new book out, even if I am a little late getting around to it.
Next is an odd book, not just because it’s a completely non-horror, non-genre novel. It reads like one of his other books — it has the same wonderful language and descriptions, and the main character is similar in many ways to the others — but I was disappointed to find a character-driven mainstream novel instead of an artful horror story. It was still compelling and interesting, but I found myself having a hard time caring a whole lot about the main character. And if you can’t care about the main character in a character-driven novel, then what’s left?
The main character, Kevin Quinn, is a bit of a loser, adrift in life and content with just getting by instead of making something of himself. This same kind of character was in Hynes’ previous two novels, and while I found myself caring less about them, as well, they were staged in the center of a larger, more portentous storyline that kept me guessing, and kept me entertained. Plus, in those novels, the characters were as much victims of circumstance as they were of not having a proper drive, which at least created some sympathy for them. In Next, that’s all missing, because the main character’s only apparent drive is to go after women much younger than he. In fact, the only thing that kept me guessing in this novel was when I asked, When is this guy going to give up on chasing an unattainable woman and get on with his real life?
The story is oddly compelling, considering that very little happens over the course of the book. The novel only covers about 4-5 hours of Kevin’s life, but through flashbacks, we learn about almost all of his adult life. The events paint a portrait of an immature man, since his memories are revealed in context with the women he’s had relationships with during that time. They define him, and that definition actually lays the groundwork for why he’s pursuing random women in Austin. He’s ready for a change in his life, and while he’s in Austin for a job interview, he’s also thinking about breaking up with the woman he’s currently with, as well. The women serve as a reflection on him and his mental state, and that ultimately becomes the theme of the book.
Did I like the book? I think so. Would I recommend it? It’s hard to say. If the summary and my comments above don’t turn you off from the book, I think it’s worth reading. It’s just an unexpected sort of story, especially given the kinds of stories Hynes has written before this one.(less)