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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Where I Uncomfortably Pan a Book in as Few Words as Possible

Red Vengeance (Black Widow, #2)Red Vengeance by Margaret Stohl
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing. I wanted to like this far more than I actually did.

In this novel, we spend way too much time in characters' heads, listening to them replay the same thoughts, or half-thoughts, over and over. The book is about 75% soap opera, and all of it is happening as memory and reflection and self-recrimination and second-guessing.

There are a few scenes with pretty good action, but not enough to balance out the long, slow chapters in between, and not enough plot to make sense. Did the author really have the antagonist drop 5 nuclear devices just to send a message to the Black Widow to go to Moscow?

And the Black Widow herself was horribly underused. I'm okay with her understudy being the center of the action, but she was just as disappointing, barely doing anything remotely heroic.

The book was a gift. I wanted to like it. I wish I had.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Why the novel "Fire" is perfect for 2018

Fire (Graceling Realm, #2)Fire by Kristin Cashore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like her father, Fire is a monster in a world filled with monsters. In this land, monsters are outrageously beautiful but also able to sense and influence the minds of others. Monster animals, like raptors and big cats, use their gift to lure the dull-witted out to be killed. Her father, a human monster and a true psychopath, used it to control and hurt others. Fire, however, isn't like her father, and uses her power a different way. This is her story, and it's thought-provoking as well as being a genuine pleasure to read.

Fire is a great character--round, dynamic, well-drawn and empathetic, with an arc that makes sense. Surprisingly, although it's almost a decade old, it feels like her story was written for 2018. The themes, of course, are timeless: the abuse of power; the right of women to be treated with dignity and respect; the right of women to feel safe; the ethics of "the greater good"; and others. What is most striking, though, is Fire's constant need to protect herself from men who desire her and want to possess her and want to hurt her because of her incredible beauty and desirability. Men literally lose their minds around her, and though they have a variety of reactions, from annoying to deadly, they all reduce her to a single external attribute, and they almost always fail to control themselves or restrain their impulses. Because of them, she needs to constantly protect herself.

It is striking to see the world through her eyes, to see the men who fall at her feet in adoration, or those who want to rape her or possess her, to see her strategize moment by moment, month by month, how to avoid the worst of them and how to defeat or escape or manipulate the others. She is the desired object, harassed and attacked and adored and coveted and fought over, who, with allies, insists on her right to be a person and not a possession.

To be in her mind, to feel her revulsion because of the relentless male gaze, the unrestrained waves of toxic male desire, is an education. She is not flattered or enchanted; she is repulsed, and frightened, and wants to be left alone. In the course of the story she is forced to learn new ways to use her gifts, to fight back, to assert her rights, to demand to be seen as herself and not as the object of desire and fantasy. It is this dynamic that makes the story feel so current.

To be clear, this is not a rant or a political tract. It is a fantasy novel, with brilliant action, a well-conceived world, and many engaging characters, and it is entertaining and a joy to read. It just also happens to be deeper and more provocative and more eye-opening than most.

Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Where, with unearned confidence, I both praise and critique a very fine author. With apologies. ;)

The Providence of Fire (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #2)The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brian Stavely is a good writer, and deserves the reputation he has earned for being a serious author of fantasy. He is inventive, creating an exciting world and cosmology, but also knowledgeable enough about religion and philosophy and history (subjects he has apparently taught) that his world works. It is believable rather than contrived, which makes the action feel more real and more plausible, and makes the characters more human. The intersection of religion and politics is treated in a sophisticated way that gives the novel real depth and even actual meaning outside the imaginary world where it takes place.

One of the things I enjoyed in this novel is that the main characters mostly move forward and succeed by using their skills--awesome characters being awesome. (™!) Too many novels create conflict by having the MC screw up constantly, making bad decisions, or ignoring good advice, and the author doesn't give us too much of that. The characters have skills and intelligence that they apply to their problems in a rational but human way, and their success is generally through their hard work and sincere effort. Though they do fail sometimes or choose wrong sometimes, it is in keeping with their personality and the laws governing all of them, in the same way that great teams don't win every game. In other words, it feels natural or organic. These interesting people are doing the best they can, and I'm still feeling sympathetic towards them two books in, even some of the bad guys.

I wish the novel had moved along a bit more, though. I almost stopped a couple times when the strategizing and arguing and other slow-moving sections made it a chore, with 300 dense pages still to go. It was worth it in the end, obviously, but I didn't always pick up the book with pleasure or put it down entertained. (After reading a few books where characters cross the open steppe, I'd have to conclude that it's just not a good idea, from a narrative perspective.) Personal preference, I suppose. YMMV.

Yes, I will look for book three. I'm still cheering for the characters, and rooting for the author. Hopefully, that's where all the questions will be answered, and all the awesome characters do awesome things.... ™ ;)

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Another awesome Arizona writer

Hunters Rise (Echo Team Book 1)Hunters Rise by Joseph Hutton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun, fast-moving supernatural action novel. I liked it better for reading a copy signed by the author (actually Joe Nassise, writing under a pseudonym) who is an Arizona writer. (It took several attempts to catch him at the right time down at Comicon, but I'm glad I did.)

He writes a nicely-paced, straight ahead kind of pulp fiction, and I mean that in the best way. If you are in the mood for a book in the vein of The Destroyer or Mack Bolan--you know, pulp fiction action, with just the good parts--but you'd like to see it filled with inventive and surprising supernatural elements, this is a great choice. Lots of fun, and lots of books already published.

Here's to getting book 2.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

How I failed to appreciate a staggering work of genius

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the PresentFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For shocking erudition, this work deserves a 10/5, or 15/5--5/5 is too little. The sheer amount of learning is astounding. Incredible. Most of the time that I was reading this, I was marveling at the breadth of this man's knowledge, and how much writing--poetry, correspondence, history, novels, diaries, philosophy, drama, and everything else--he had read, digested, remembered, and could compare to other cultural objects. And how much art. And how much music. And every other scrap of cultural information. He is an encyclopedia of cultural information, and shares that knowledge while applying analysis and critique to all of it, and placing all of it in historical context, in the flow of ideas. He demonstrates more knowledge on a single page (and there are 800 of them) than I have gathered in my entire life. I don't think that's exaggeration, even though I take pride in knowing some things. It's crazy how much information he has at his fingertips.

But good god is it horrible to read.

Okay, not all of it. Any one page is pretty good. Some sections make for excellent reading, good information, something worth knowing. The best parts read like historical overviews, and those were the parts that kept me going. And in all honesty, his style is fine, his prose is clear, generally, and his command of the language is outstanding.

But it's like reading a 300,000-word meandering essay, looking for the thread, enduring a deep dive into the significance of thousands of particles of culture, some of them famous works by well-known men and women, but many, many of them virtually unknown or forgotten works by obscure historical figures. "Who cares?" was a frequent thought, though it is admittedly an irrational and unfair critique of a work nobody forced me to read. I suppose I kept hoping he would get back to things I cared about, which he did here and there. I had expected to find this a popularization of cultural history for the lay reader, but it's not that.

He writes as a critic, so while it's right that he give his opinion, it dominates the work. This book is filled with so many generalizations and unsupported opinions that you could assign an entire class unique research projects based on the assertions he makes over just one or two pages. He could, for all I know, be right about damn near everything, if you can call an opinion right or wrong, but who wants to read all of the lesser correspondence of a minor 17C playwright to see if what he says about it is accurate? (For example.)

Thus, 3/5 star. In my opinion. A towering accomplishment, but a drag--a great deal of value wrapped up in a whole lot of cripplingly dull obscurity. His theoretical, perfect audience might love this work, and rave, and demand all the stars, but that's true of every author's writing, right? Just find the right audience!

And the last bit, his critique of the late 20C, reads like every old-man rant you've ever heard--against TV, public schools, fast food, students rating professors, the internet, modern journalism, sports, non-traditional families, and many other topics. He handled the years 1500-1950 with cool detachment and impartiality, but 1950-2000, the "Get off my lawn!" years, are mainly responsible for the "decadence" part of the title. It's unfortunate that it's where the book ends, because it colors how I read everything else he wrote.

This work is impressive in many ways, particularly its scholarship, but I can't recommend it. It's a long, dry read, with widely-separated moments of interesting commentary. This is clearly meant for cultural historians and intellectuals, and maybe smart-looking bookshelves, where I'm going to put it now and pretend like I understood everything....

Oh, apparently Jacques Barzun enjoyed baseball and detective novels. I'm glad to know that.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Awesome new Holmes and Watson

A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes, #1)A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for Sherlock Holmes stories and adaptations, including the BBC's Sherlock, CBS's Elementary, the Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey, Jr., and all kinds of books, including a very enjoyable novel by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Mycroft Holmes.

I've found my new favorite.

All of the adaptations try to update the stories, showing proper respect for the original, and meet with varied success. The mystery aspect is important, of course, and so is a knowledge of the stories, but the key is Holmes, and I adore this particular heroine.

This series supposes that the Holmes family and the Watson family stay connected over the generations, with many partnerships similar to the first. The dynamic remains the same, passed on to each successive generation. The newest such partnership is Charlotte Holmes and James Watson, who meet in an American boarding school. She is the socially isolated detective, and he's the rugby-playing average guy who wants to write. Or be a doctor. Or both.

There is a lot to like about the high school mystery story, and the use of pop culture is fitting and appropriate, and Watson is a good character--but Holmes is the star. She's what makes this adaptation memorable.

In this incarnation, Holmes is a gifted high school student, a descendent of Sherlock, trained by her parents to have all his skills and knowledge. She has, of course, Sherlock's failings as well, and though all of this is conventional and expected, it's still well done, and the way it's presented is fresh. This Holmes is wonderful--independent, difficult, brilliant, brash, confident, and damaged--but somehow still a young woman in the modern world. The combination really works.

I recommend the book. Highly, in fact, in case that tips the scales for anyone.

This is not just for fans of Sherlock. With a strong teen heroine and a familiar setting, it works well as a YA novel, if somewhat edgy, as the story deals frankly with some difficult issues and contains a bit of language. Mystery fans in general and many others would find a lot to admire in this novel.

I am eager to get ahold of the sequel.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Personal reflections on Rocket Raccoon and Groot: Steal the Galaxy!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Racoon & Groot Steal The GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Racoon & Groot Steal The Galaxy by Dan Abnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're like me--where you like comics, but you love books--this crossover novel will be a great find. Marvel characters in original novels! Love it.

A digression
I remember when I was a kid, we had a Fantastic Four book. It was one of those "big little books," where it was short and fat and had a picture on every other page but was a legit book. I loved being able to read a comic book story filled with some of my favorite characters, on my own, at my own pace, supplying most of my own pictures. I read that book a bunch of times.
The Fantastic Four: The House of Horrors

About the same time, we had a "Get Smart" novel, which somehow was more fun than the goofy TV show. TV is all dialogue, but a novel has narration, which makes the story seem more real to me, and filled in so much that was missing. I don't know where that one book came from, or why we didn't get more. Should have.
Missed It By That Much!

And my favorite novel of this sort (crossover from another medium) that we had when I was a kid was Alan Dean Foster's novelization of "Star Wars." I loved the movie, but in some ways preferred the book. It had scenes that were missing from the movie, which was cool, but what affected me the most was the narration: the lingering on crucial events that occurred in a second in the movie but filled a paragraph in the book, or a page; the revelation of the characters' thoughts and motivations; the explanation and description of technology; the backstory and connections. The movie was two dimensions, but the novel was in three. Or so it seemed.
Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker

TL:DR
This "original novel of the Marvel universe" is in the same vein, and I liked it. It is a straight-up comic book adventure, but it's more fun (for me, a book nerd) to enjoy it in novel format. The author employs an excellent smart-ass tone, supplies helpful exposition, uses a variety of settings and secondary characters, and keeps the saving-of-the-galaxy plot moving along with as much energy as a comic or movie. It is very much pulp fiction, with all that implies, except for shoddy writing; Dan Abnett is an excellent writer who knows the characters and universe very well. So, I suppose, this is high quality pulp, which I mean neither as an oxymoron (a lot of pulp is well-written) nor a criticism. Pulp is entertaining; pulp is imaginative; pulp doesn't make a lot of demands on a reader; pulp, more than anything is fun, which is what I want most from reading.

If you're not put off by your comic book characters showing up in your paperbacks, and you like novels to be fun, maybe even silly, you should take a look. I think you'll enjoy it.

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