How does one critique a book? Examine the writing, the mechanics, the beauty of the written word? Or, does one take another approach and view the enjo...moreHow does one critique a book? Examine the writing, the mechanics, the beauty of the written word? Or, does one take another approach and view the enjoyment and pull of the narrative?
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won't go into a detailed review, because the book is 90...moreA Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won't go into a detailed review, because the book is 900+ pages and builds off a large, large cast of characters and has a complicated continuity. What Martin does well is in juggling so many characters and story lines. The price though is that not much happens in 900 pages. There is so much build up with very little pay off. Action almost happens, then the point of view switches, and we discover the action has taken place off stage. It's frustrating and detracts at times.
When the next book comes out, I may just read about it on Wikipedia just to see what five things happened. Martin's epic has become so bloated that it's weighed down and moves with a stumbling pace.(less)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader's mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.
In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men's necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.
Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune's special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat's mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they're powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri's father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.
Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri's novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame's role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There's more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it's not worth going exploring at this point.
1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What's worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it's sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it's completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.
Some books are read for pleasure. Other books are read to gain knowledge, to learn something factual or expand one's mind. Still, there are books that...moreSome books are read for pleasure. Other books are read to gain knowledge, to learn something factual or expand one's mind. Still, there are books that fit into neither categories. They are read, because a person is bored and it's the only free book available in a hostel. They are read, because it's a beautiful day outside and there are few books which look appealing on the new book display. Blackout by Connie Willis is one of those books.
I grabbed the book off the shelf, sat outside with my lunch, and hoped to enjoy a hour's respite from work. The premise of Willis's novel is time travel. Historians based in Oxford travel back in time to study events. Willis's intent seems to be the creation of a sweeping saga. She introduces a plethora of characters with little context. These characters will each have sections based on their third-person limited perspective, but it takes 50-100 pages to keep the straight or care about them.
The novel starts out knee deep in action, but it feels like something was missed. I asked myself if this were the second book in a series? Nope. The reader must play catch up and look for dialogue clearly written to pass information back to the reader. Remember when you wanted to go to the Crusades? Aw, that was ages ago, I've changed. Who is that dialogue for? The characters or the reader?
One major flaw with this novel is that it's entirely overwritten. Two-thirds of the book could be cut out and it wouldn't really matter. Going back to the premise of the novel, historians travel back in time to study events. The group we follow are all headed for different points during World War II. There are some rules regarding time travel (of course, there are always rules), but Willis doesn't go into these too much and definitely offers no basis for how time travel works. The historians use a machine called the Net and it's so smart it won't allow them to be placed in places where they may affect events. These points are called divergences. So, the historians go back in time, and lose contact with Oxford. What follows is their incredibly boring activities as the war rages on and they fret about returning home.
Eventually, the three find each other as their time has overlapped. That seems like the point of the novel. They'll come together and be rescued. After 450 pages they are all in London and it seems like escape or rescue is imminent. Then, the books ends and there's a message: "For the riveting conclusion of Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis's All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010."
I read this book, because it was there and I had nothing else to read. I skimmed along just to see what happened. Not only does nothing really happen in this novel, but the premise is ridiculous, and the characters are bland. Blackout is an inflated novel with little to say and even less to offer.(less)
When a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it's a sign. Next pitch is a homerun. When someone, in this c...moreWhen a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it's a sign. Next pitch is a homerun. When someone, in this case, Douglas Kenrick, entitles a book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life it's the literary equivalent of holding a bat straight out to the centerfield wall.
The introduction begins, "You and I have probably never met, but you might be shocked to learn how well we know one another and how intimately our lives are connected." Kenrick goes on to say, "this is a book about the biggest question we can ask: What is the meaning of life?" However, he explores questions regarding the choices people make and how evolution may play into those decisions, without really addressing the meaning of life, or the other question he brings up, "How can I live a more meaningful life?" Instead, as if he were ready for critic's comments, Kenrick states, "Despite what you might have read in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, first impressions can be misleading. If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you might think it is mostly about me...But if you keep reading, I am pretty sure you'll discover that this book is really about you, your family, and your friends and about the important decisions you confront every day."
It feels like Kenrick is putting the onus on the reader. If you think the book is about me, obviously you are not a close reader, obviously you skimmed my book. Balance those sentences with the powerful title and warning signs may begin to flare. In my experience, books are skimmed because they are not engaging. Let's look at the sentences with some modifications. "If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you may think I am not an engaging writer. But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is worth it." It's hard to get past "but if you keep reading." As I thought about it, my main impulse was to say, "But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is not really engaging."
Stripped away, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is a book centered around the author and his interests. The writing trends toward creating a persona of a New York City kid turned intellectual but still with his folksy, blue-collar charm. It comes across feeling as fabricated as Hillary Clinton having a shot of whiskey with rural constituents. Someone may say a scientist researches their interests, and thus Kenrick's interests are really the foundation of his research. That may be the case, but I didn't find Kenrick's interests and research too interesting. Instead, the tone of the book is soapbox. He's not looking to help people have a more meaningful life, but is defending evolutionary psychology against critics. Moreover, he is supplanting structure with stories from his life.
Overall, I came away having learned some concepts of evolutionary and cognitive psychology, but it was at a cost. The cost was wading through a tiresome narrative from a writer who loves spinning yarns, but is not a good storyteller nor an engaging writer. The cost was being placed in the middle of a brawl between a defensive scientist and the status quo without a background in experimental design. The cost was a writer who was ready to turn on his reader in the first few pages of the introduction. With a title like Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, the reader expects a homerun and deserves at least a double play. Kenrick displayed his personality with a catchy title, then left the crowd disappointed with a grounder skittering along the infield dirt.(less)
Magic is elusive. It contains mystery, it is hard to explain, yet it is also recognizable. In Patrick Rothfuss's, The Name of the Wind, the magic was apparent. The novel was fantasy, but it was also original. It didn't fall into the traps of so many poorly written fantasy novels as illustrated in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The story was intriguing, the writing was above average, and the main character, Kvothe, was interesting. The Name of the Wind is a wonderful book. As I said though, magic is elusive, and upon reading The Wise Man's Fear, it's clear that Rothfuss has lost it.
If the first novel had not been so good, this would not be a problem. The writing is not as careful nor as creative. Sections that should be summarized fill 60-200 pages. Sections that should be expanded are summarized. Instead of the overall narrative progressing, the reader is forced to follow vignettes (I can't think of a proper term) that are tedious, boring, and do little in terms of plot.
The interesting parts of this series are the Chandrain (sort of like Tolkien's ringwraiths), the Amyr (sort of like the Templars), and how/why Kvothe is now the innkeeper in a backwater town, hiding out, and seemingly powerless. These are the interesting parts and nothing was added to them. Instead, we see Kvothe learn how to become a masterful warrior (cliche), outsmart and have sex with a fairy/demigod of sexuality (tedious), stumble through his relationship with Denna (repetitive), struggle at university (repetitive), and earn enough money to escape poverty. While these stories may be part of the fabric of who Kvothe is, they do little in the novel. Rothfuss seems in love with the character, but unable to navigate time and structure. It seems like he could have packaged these stories as a collection and sold them separately, instead of trying to force them into The Wise Man's Fear.
Whether or not Rothfuss is able to rediscover his magic, and learn the name of storytelling is an open question. After reading The Wise Man's Fear, I have my doubts and will not be reading the third book. He called it once, can he call it again? Perhaps, he needs Elodin to guide his way.(less)
Perhaps, in 1999, when Cryptonomicon came out, it was a cutting edge techno-thriller. Eleven years later, it's laughable, because the world which Ste...morePerhaps, in 1999, when Cryptonomicon came out, it was a cutting edge techno-thriller. Eleven years later, it's laughable, because the world which Stephenson is writing about is so far in the past. Gather round kiddies, let me tell you about this thing called the Internet. Also, for good measure, I'm going to through in some UNIX commands and reference hacking every chance I get.
The book is 1100+ pages and should have been cut to between 300-400 pages. The reader doesn't need to know everything about the characters. Watch as Randy uses the bathroom and thinks about work. Why?
The other thing that bothered me about this book is the unbelievability of it. The novel takes place in the present, circa '99, and during World War II. There's a conspiracy between the World War II characters, and it just so happens that their offspring meet up in the present to deal with the same issue: Nazi and Japanese gold.
Stephenson manages to write in a way that keeps the reader wanting to know what happens. The problem is that most of the pages are worth reading. This is a book to skim. But is it worth it? Short answer: no. Stephenson has brought us along for pages and pages. That much time demands a worthy ending. Stephenson takes a short cut, and leaves the reader where the first stage on action ends. Do we know how everything turns out? Nope. We just know that everything has changed.
There are moments of humor, mainly from the Randy's point of view. However, the humor isn't enough to carry the book, especially when complete filler is thrown in. For instance, Randy's budding relationship with Amy Shaftoe. What does this add?
I've been told by friends, that Stephenson's novel Snow Crash is worth reading, but I'm not sure I'll check it out. Cryptonomicon is novel that owes its success to the time it was published. Take that away, and you're left with a bloated book best left on the shelf. (less)
The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down. It's a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnecte...moreThe Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down. It's a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnected all of these people and events are, but to merely accept them and trust as the main characters Odile and Max trust in each other. What spurs the reader to continue are the characters, even though they are clunky fixtures banging around Paris who never truly become believable. It's hard to take a character named Groot very seriously, especially when it brings to mind a certain slow-witted barbarian.
The characters: Max: Husband to Odile, and small, but successful film maker, American expat. Odile: Wife to Max, small scale fashion designer. Groot: Transient Dutchman who lives on a houseboat with his trust fund Californian girlfriend. Rachel: Groot's trust fund girlfriend, and sort of star of Max's film. Turner: Shady art dealer. Thierry Collins: Odile's partner in a smuggling operation from Russia. English professor in debt. Gabriella: Turner's assistant. Kukushkin: Shady Russian banker / crime boss.
A few minor characters are left out, but the basic premise is that Odile and Collins smuggle some artwork out of Russia for Turner, and that the border crossing was expedited by Kukushkin. Something goes wrong, and suddenly Russian criminals start harassing Turner and Odile in search of Collins whom disappeared. Meanwhile, Max is going through an artistic transformation and begins to shoot a movie focused on Rachel, Groot, and their houseboat the Nachtvlinder. While all these various elements eventually overlap, it feels forced and disingenuous.
Also, the language dragged at the pacing of the novel. Exposition fills the pages, telling the reader how characters feel, without showing us anything. If that were changed, this would be a more captivating read.
The last part that keeps the reader interested is the quasi-mystery. This isn't a true mystery, because it all seems so obvious, but still it pulls at the reader to see how Max will piece it together. Perhaps, the real mystery is how his film will unfold. For me, that was the real driving force of the novel. The sections about Max shooting film and thinking and talking about film were intriguing. The rest came across a little too wooden. At times, this novel felt more like a translation because there is something just off about the language.
Another disappointment is how some elements are dropped and seem to have no importance, such as all of the scenes with Odile having her portrait painted. The painter can "see" the true Odile, while no one else can. But this finishes up and nothing comes of it. Finally, the characters actions seem to have little or no consequences. Mooney writes off major developments and actions with phrases like, they didn't need to talk about it because they would never mention it again. Or, her hand moved the gun with no thought, and he didn't question her motives. It's uninspired, sloppy writing.
I kept reading this story, because it was like watching a malfunctioning car racing down a speedway. The finish line is in sight, but you have no idea if it will make it there in one piece.(less)
Philipp Meyer's short story "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone" was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel America...morePhilipp Meyer's short story "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone" was a fantastic piece of fiction, and it motivated me to read his novel American Rust. While the novel started out strong, it began to slow down and stumble around fairly early. It has the makings of a captivating narrative, but Meyer never lets it go. He controls the pace to such an extent that the chapters become meaningless as nothing happens.
The novel is set in a failing mining/industrial town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Meyer does a great job capturing and describing the town of Buell. Hulking shells of factories dominate the landscape, interspersed with boarded up shops, and cash for checks strip malls. The characters are a mix of down on their luck types who never break out of the the area, and either through love or inertia remain in Buell.
The main action in the novel is that Issac English has murdered a homeless man while running away from home with his friend Poe. Poe is a fading high school football star who is aggressive and can be out of control. On more than one occasion he's fought and severely hurt people. Issac on the other hand is described as a genius, but so smart that sometimes the simple things throw him off. He's stayed behind to take care of his father with whom he has a terrible relationship filled with emotional abuse and distance. The flight from home and the murder happen within in the first thirty pages. What follows is 330 pages of not much.
The other main characters are Harris (the sheriff), Lee (Issac's smart sister who escaped to Yale and married), Grace (Poe's semi-failure of a mother), and Henry English (Issac and Lee's father). The chapters are titled with one of the characters name and are written in third person limited from that character's point of view. As the murder comes to light, Poe is arrested, and Issac runs away again. Due to an on again off again relationship with Grace, Harris tries to help Poe and protect him.
The chapters can be generalized in the following.
Issac's chapters: I'm going to show them. I'm running away. I'm "the Kid," who's tough and resourceful. Issac meanders through the landscape getting routinely beat up and taken advantage of before returning home.
Poe's chapters: What's going on? How did I get here? Why am I taking the fall for Issac's crime? My life is full of bad decisions, and I don't care.
Lee's chapters: Coming home is horrible. I don't know if I should believe Poe about Issac killing that man? I'm confused. It would all be easier if I went back to New York or Connecticut.
Harris's chapters: I shouldn't protect Poe, but I do. Sometimes you have to bend the law. Do I love Grace?
Grace's chapters: I should have done more for my son. I'm a bad mother. Do I love Harris?
Henry's chapters: What I've done to that boy is wrong. I'm not a great father.
It may seem flippant, but not much happens in this novel. The crime does not weigh on Issac like the Raskolnikov's killing of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, instead Issac seems full of angst and impotence. The sections where Poe is in prison are the most interesting, but once you've read or seen any narrative with characters in prison, they do not feel very original.
American Rust accurately describes the depressed nature of the rust belt, but beyond that it is a novel that could work best compressed into a short story or a novella.(less)
Writing is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away fro...moreWriting is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away from the narrative. In looking at, True North, let's examine the choices Harrison made. He chose this novel to be in the first person. The events are narrated by, David Burkett, the wealthy son from a family that logged and mined the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for three generations. Why use first person for this novel? What does it achieve?
First person narration shields the reader from the other characters in the novel. While the narrative may be about, Burkett, trying to understand his ancestors and make amends for the evils he believes they've brought upon the land, stripping away natural resources and bleeding their labor force in equal measure, it is really about, Burkett, the man, or Burkett, the shadow of man, trying to find his own stride against that of his father's. If this novel were in third person, the reader might end up sympathizing for some of the other characters. They couldn't be as evil unless they are seen through Burkett's skewed perspective. Of course, Burkett's father is a terrible man known for having sex with underage girls, sometimes consensually while other times forced. His terrible nature could still be represented in the third person, but it would be difficult to make him as evil as Burkett believes him to be.
The topic of the novel seems like it could be interesting. I'm from Northern Michigan, so there was a connection between me and the Upper Peninsula. However, while the narrator is writing a history of the logging industry, we never really see it and the story focuses exclusively on Burkett's relationship with the history. This process of writing for the narrator dominates his life for twenty years, in which he spends his time guiltily living off his family's wealth, wandering the woods, fishing, trolling the surface of Christianity, having sex with women, and feeling disconnected. Perhaps, this could be interesting, but Burkett is a bland narrator, and his story and obsessions come across as mediocre and whiny. As a reader, I found myself unable to sympathize or identify with Burkett. He's petulant. He's weak. If he's an idealist, then it is negated by his utter passivity. What does he risk in the novel? When does he grow? The novel moves from the 60's through the 70's and then the 80's. But the reader never gets a sense of time really moving. The decades seem of little consequence, except that Harrison can no longer use the casual sex of the late 60's as an excuse for Burkett's sexual romps. Burkett, while in his late 30's seems to be the same as when he was in his 20's.
This brings up my last question. What is the audience supposed to take away from this novel? Does the narrator overcome his father? Do we see enough of a change that it pays off? Is the investment of roughly 400 pages of prose worth the ending? Personally, I found very little to take away. In an earlier post, I'd written how I continued to read this book because I couldn't fall asleep and didn't want to get out of bed and dig up a new book at 2 A.M. Not exactly a gun to the head, but not a ringing endorsement either. Worst of all, the ending seems tacked on. As if Harrison realized there was something dramatic lacking from the novel. It's dramatic, but we've seen that on the first page, and it comes hundreds of pages too late.
One thing I found interesting is Harrison's stab at meta-fiction. On page 340, Burkett's sometime lover who is a poet gives him some advice regarding the history he is writing. She says, "Figure it out for yourself. If you can't you'll always write shit. You're dog-paddling in too much material. Start over. Give me a hundred clean pages called 'What My People Did,' or something like that. You're trying to be a nineteenth-century curmudgeon. You're starting twelve thousand years ago with the glaciers then moving slowly onward like a fucking crippled toad. Get over the glaciers in one page, please. You quoted that beautiful prose of Agassiz. Try to understand why it's beautiful and your prose isn't. You wrote nicely in those thirteen pages because you forgot yourself and your thousand post-rationalizations and let your material emerge directly and intimately." Perhaps, this is Burkett the narrator commenting or Harrison himself in the following passage. Whoever it is speaking, it seems to be a proper response to the novel.
"I had pressed my thumb on the dorsal fin of a trout and now watched a raindrop of blood ooze out. I had asked for this speech and been roundly whipped by a schoolmarm. All these years after the inception and I had thirteen golden pages." (less)
In The City and The City, China Miéville, branches out into a new form of genre fiction: the mystery. While past novels, like Perdido Street Station a...moreIn The City and The City, China Miéville, branches out into a new form of genre fiction: the mystery. While past novels, like Perdido Street Station and the Scar, have firmly established Miéville as a scifi/fantasy superstar they have not been proving grounds for writing a good mystery. Miéville works in some of his scifi and fantasy tendencies by creating this city in a version of our own world and having it split. Citizens of each city are supposed to unsee each other. Effectively, they act as though they have blinders on and the other city is non-existent. If they do notice it or cross over, this is seen as breach, and a mysterious police force intervenes. The idea is a little compelling, but not compelling enough for three hundred pages. The city is what Miéville is most interested in, and the overall murder mystery becomes quite secondary.
Most of the dialogue in the book is poorly constructed. Characters speak to give the reader information. It's a poor attempt to move the story forward that hurts the novel in another way. Character development is as non-existent as the boundary between the cities. The narrator is not intriguing or endearing. We never really see his motivations beyond it being his job. Yet, he is working outside the system. He must have motivations. Often times the characters seem as though they've been created by someone who has watched a lot of police dramas. The other awkward area in this novel is the attempt to ground it in our present world. There is an internet, email, and all the big corporations that litter expressways with billboards. To what effect? The pop culture corporate name dropping doesn't add anything. It doesn't make the Cities any more strange by seeing them next to our world.
Miéville is an exciting writer who will most likely write more books. For the time being though, this is one to miss. (less)
**spoiler alert** In a follow up to his acclaimed novel, Perdido Street Station, Mieville offers up a novel that falls short. For those that loved Per...more**spoiler alert** In a follow up to his acclaimed novel, Perdido Street Station, Mieville offers up a novel that falls short. For those that loved Perdido Street Station, this novel takes place in the same world where New Crobuzon exists, but follows characters aboard a floating city scrapped together from a multitude of ships. Mieville has something, which few fantasy writers do: a love for words. However, that doesn't mean he should be free of editing or allow himself to get carried away. His books are epics spanning 600+ pages, but what in those pages is actually necessary for the story? Some may argue that his descriptions ground the reader in the setting, and establish the overall mood (decay, grit, mistrustful, and isolation) that weigh on most characters and objects, but when this effect is achieved, do you have to continue throughout the novel? I found myself skimming the pages, because I could visualize the motley group of ships with new buildings sprouting up from their decks. I didn't need to be shown over and over again. Another failure of this book is that not much happens. The rulers raise a sea creature, harness it, and travel to a reality warping stretch of ocean where there is a mutiny and they turn back. In the process the primary character realizes she's been used repeatedly. I just saved you 623 pages of reading. Of course, I'm being a little harsh, but I wanted a lot more from this novel. Part of the problem is that I was not particularly invested in any of the characters. The primary character is someone who is reserved, cold and in control of her emotions. There is nothing to identify with or to sympathize. Who cares? Who cares what happens to her or anyone else? I'm thinking of epics with characters that are despicable whom a reader cares about. That leads me to Blood Meridian, full of deceitful killers, yet I care about them, I want to know what happens to them. There needs to be some resolution. In this novel, not only do I not care about the characters, there is nothing that really ties it all together. Are we to find pleasure in Doul taking control of Armada, or Bellis returning home? It didn't matter to me. While Mieville has conceived a world that is diverse, dangerous and fantastic, it does not mean this is a well constructed novel. Even the shifts in point of view "interludes" as Mieville groups them, and letters written in the first person show this weakness. He can't tell the story without bouncy around. It's Bellis' story, but not entirely. On the whole, this was a disappointment. If you read it, skim as much as possible, or even better, don't bother.(less)