Moving Day

25 Mar

Hey everyone,

I’m moving the blog to a new home over at Two Wrongs and a Write. I’ll migrate existing posts over there, preserving comments if possible, over the next couple of days. In the meantime, check Two Wrongs and a Write for new material.

Some posts from the past week on TWaaW:

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Seafaring Stories and Science Fiction

Green Light: The White Mountains trilogy

The Book of Beasts by E. Nesbit

Jasper Fforde (A Ffamily Affffinity ffor Ffarce)

* That last name is just begging for an unfortunate typo.

I Am Four Books Behind and Working on a Fifth

19 Mar

I have now read four books in a row without reviewing them and am working on the fifth (and the sixth as well, actually). This is me semi-publicly committing that I am going to review the following books, damn it:

  1. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  2. The Amateur by Robert Littell
  3. The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
  4. The Dinner by Herman Koch

Once I finish it, I’ll review Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear as well. I’m less confident about Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing About The Dog, as this is the third time I’ve read the first twenty pages and I seem to keep starting other books instead of finishing that one. I’ve enjoyed the first twenty pages every time, though, so maybe I’ll break the pattern someday. We shall see.

American Idol Season 12: Top 40 Sudden Death Round #1

20 Feb

Jenny Beth Willis (Who?): Her skirt’s too big and the dropped waist make her look stumpy, which I highly doubt is the case. Singing-wise, the key is too low for her on the low intro and she goes flat on a couple of notes. The rest of it is competent. After a few lines she starts getting a little shaky, probably nerves. Forgettable. Shockingly, Mariah is the only one to give actionable, constructive criticism.

Tina Torres, aka Camp Mariah girl: I was unimpressed by her audition, and this is going about the same way as I remember that going. She makes faces like she’s taking an epic dump. She kind of sings like she’s taking an epic dump. Flat on every big note. Tons of Mariah runs with no ability to hold a note without going hella flat. Bleah. We’ll be stuck with her for a while.

Adriana Something from Alaska: Beautiful girl who sings beautifully. Absolutely fantastic. Slightly biffs the last note, but she’s done more than enough to be the best so far by miles. And her grandmother(?) in the audience is adorbs.

Brandy Hotard aka Tierra: Dead ringer for Tierra from The Bachelor. She hits her first two big notes flat, but she fixes it as the song goes on. Not as good as Adriana, but waaay better than Tina or Jenny Beth. Maybe we can get rid of Tina after all? Nope, the judges are not on board. I’m telling you, if she goes and Tina stays then the season is off to a crap start.

Shubha Vedula: Trying way too hard, from the busy busy arrangement to the silver pants showing two different panty lines. She definitely made an impression, but she needs to tone it way the fuck down. However, she’s will be through. If she calms down, she’ll stick around for a while.

Kamaria: Weak start — is it higher than she was expecting? She cannot hit the high notes at all. Total faceplant, automatic elimination.

Cree Harrison aka Melanie Lynskey: This girl has a great name, a beautiful face, and a real everywoman thing going on.  Her styling is very understated — large, loose, light-colored shirt and jeans. I like it. Oh, should I say something about her singing? It is great. Almost loses it in a mid-song climax but completely recovers and hits the big ending on the nose. New best of the night.

Angela Miller: This girl is from Beverly. Go Massachusetts! She’s coming off a dominant original song performance to cap off Vegas week, which might be a tough act to follow. Is this another original? The rhymes are juuust off enough that I’d believe that it was. They don’t mention it and they would flog the hell out of it if it were, so I guess it’s just a bad “real” song. She does well but not amazingly, but of course she’s going through.

Isabelle: Shaky and a couple of notes get away from her. Her last glory note is solid. This combined with the audacity of going for God Bless the Child make me think she’ll just barely miss the cut. The judges love it but I don’t.

Amber Holcomb: I am in love with her dimple. She’s great on the hit-‘em-big-and-hold-‘em notes, but a little runny for me and goes weak a couple times when she’s not blasting. Good news is she takes Tina on right in her wheelhouse and destroys her for the run slot. She’s in. Maybe we can get rid of Tina after all.

The five who should make it: Cree, Angela Miller, Amber, Adriana, and Shubha.

The five who will: Cree, Angela Miller, Amber, Adriana, and Tina. Maaaaaybe Isabelle, but I’m calling Tina.

The five who do: Tina, Cree, Angela, Amber, and Adriana. Nailed it!

Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

31 Jan

silver-cow-creamer

P.G. Wodehouse has a few sets of characters that he revisits in multiple novels. Code of The Woosters is one of the Jeeves and Wooster books — probably my favorite of the bunch.

In Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves are dispatched by Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia to pop up to Totleigh Towers and steal a horrendous piece of antique silver — a cow creamer that Wooster’s uncle Tom has his eye on. Sir Watkyn Bassett, the current owner of the cow creamer, is all too savvy to Wooster’s plans, and warns him that anyone stealing the cow creamer will go to the chokey. On top of that, Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeline is convinced that Wooster is madly in love with her. At the start of the novel, she is luckily engaged to Wooster’s good friend Gussie, who is on board for her particularly moon-eyed brand of silliness. However, when Wooster reaches Totleigh Towers, he learns that the engagement may be in danger — and he’s the next in line.

That’s where we stand as of about page 29, and I haven’t even gotten to the policeman’s helmet, the leatherbound notebook, or the dog Bartholomew.

This book has a plot that’s one of the twistiest, and you can see as you read why Wodehouse has a reputation for being the master of the comic farce. At any given moment the reader will be completely clear as to where various items are, where each character would want them to be, and the forces pulling them in different directions. Four paragraphs later, the whole picture will have changed.

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes a light-hearted farce.  Wooster’s slangy familiarity with and bizarre misinterpretations of quotes from the classics should be rewarding for folks who like Monty Python, for example. Anyone who hasn’t read other Wooster/Jeeves books, or anyone who’s a fan already but missed this one somehow, should give it a go. This is an all-time great.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

31 Jan

miss_peregrines_homeJacob grew up hearing his grandfather’s stories about his youth in Europe and the odd characters he lived with there — a girl who could fly, a pair of twins with the strength to juggle boulders, and an old bird who ran a home where she took care of them all. He even shows Jacob old black and white photographs that seem to show these peculiar people. He had to leave, he says, to escape from the monsters who threatened them all.
When Jacob was younger, he assumed his grandfather’s stories were the literal truth, but as he grew he learned to interpret them as metaphors for the Holocaust. However, a tragedy early in the book makes Jacob rethink everything. He decides to go searching for any signs of the home where his grandfather grew up, and any chance there might be survivors who can help him understand. In his search, Jacob eventually finds evidence that his grandfather was, after all, telling him tales that were grounded in truth.
The book was originally inspired by a collection of pictures that the author found. The story he builds around them incorporates a number of photographs that are included in the book, most without alteration.
Where the photos are alien and fascinating, the book is odd and interesting. The skeleton of the plot is a bit familiar as far as YA literature goes, but the details are off-kilter enough to keep you reading. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of odd magic in their YA.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

29 Jan

ready_player_oneIn Ready Player One, the inventor of a Second Life-like virtual universe called OASIS has left behind a very odd video will. In it, he lays out a challenge. He invites all comers to a game within his game to collect three keys and pass three gates to find the ultimate prize, an egg. The player who finds the egg will be named his sole heir and inherit untold wealth and a controlling interest in OASIS. This causes a huge rush upon his death, but the game proves to be a difficult one.

A hardcore group of gamers who call themselves gunters (short for “egg hunters”) continue to pursue the prize even after the initial craze has died out. In addition, the requisite evil corporation is also in pursuit. However, at the start of our story, the race has been on for quite a while … for years, in fact. And not a single gunter has managed to find even the first key.

Ready Player One is the story of the first gunter to get the Copper Key, his quest, the characters he meets along the way, and the world of OASIS. The story is heavy on nostalgia for 80s culture, chiefly video games and movies and a smattering of TV. As someone who came to the book without a deep background knowledge of most of what he was talking about, I can say that the book does a good job of describing various cultural artifacts with no prior knowledge required. I will say that the few references I did know well weren’t particularly (to me) meaningful in the way they were discussed — it was more, this guy loves this thing, let me describe the thing to you, the knowledge of excruciatingly small details of this thing helps X character to advance in the egg hunt. I wouldn’t let lack of familiarity with 80s pop culture discourage anyone who’s interested in the book — I can attest that not much background knowledge will be required in order to enjoy the novel.

This book is set in a richly sketched world, almost too richly sketched to play second fiddle to the plot. When the novel takes a brief interlude to focus on character development, as opposed to following the quest and exploring the worlds within the world, you may find yourself hoping that it’ll be over soon. The main character is a bit too idealized for my tastes — he’s a world-class video game player who captures the heart of an OASIS-famous blogger for no apparent reason other than that he likes her. Still, I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys MMORPGs, 80s pop culture, or a good old-fashioned quest.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

12 Jan

amazon_state_of_wonderFor me, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a triumph of atmospheric mood-setting, but a big splat as far as the plot. The story is relatively straightforward. The protagonist, Marina, is a scientist working for a huge research corporation in Minneapolis. Her officemate, Anders, set off for the Amazon a few months ago on a fact-finding mission to check in on a senior colleague of theirs, Dr. Swenson. Swenson, who was Marina’s teacher many years ago, is deep into a research project that could lead to a biomedical breakthrough — not to mention a ton of money for their common employer. In the first few pages of the novel, Marina receives and then relays some startling news about Anders.

Marina is soon dispatched to the Amazon herself, in pursuit of the truth — the truth about Anders, and the truth about Swenson’s research. In the first half of the novel, Marina retraces Anders’ steps as far as Manaus, the vividly-rendered Brazilian city closest to Eckman’s research station. She is stranded there for a good portion of the novel, oppressed by illness, the heat, the bugs, and the isolation she feels as a non-native. Finally (mild spoilers), she finds Swenson and is able to make it out to the research station. There, while the environmental conditions are in fact much worse than they were in town, she begins to feel more at ease in her surroundings and find a place for herself among the community of researchers and native subjects of research.

I am torn on whether to recommend this novel, and how strongly. Fans of atmospheric storytelling, who want to feel immersed in the world of a book, could not do much better. Patchett has a knack for casting a dreamlike spell over her reader, which may feel familiar for those who have enjoyed her other works. I’ve only read Bel Canto and, now, State of Wonder, and I felt the same immersive enchantment creeping over me while reading both. If you enjoy letting the world of a novel wash over you, this is an impressive feat of mood-setting and renders the setting of the Amazonian city and forest convincingly.

However, I personally felt just annoyed, there’s no other word for it, by both Marina (the protagonist) and the author by the end of the book. I just could not feel one iota of sympathy for Marina. I couldn’t hate her — she was by no means evil or even mean. She was just completely passive. I have rarely been so struck by the complete lack of character in a character. She just lets things happen to her. On the rare occasions that she puts up a token resistance, she always — every single time — allows herself to be overruled. And she doesn’t have any curiosity, or any work ethic. I just found it a completely unrealistic depiction of a character who’s supposed to be a scientist. As for the author … how to say this. I don’t want to spoil the book, and nearly everything I objected to comes concentrated in about a 40-page chunk toward the very end. I’ll just say that the feeling of powerlessness, of dread, and the (until then) extremely consistently rendered Swenson character, are all completely undermined by some plot choices as the novel wraps up.

All in all, the language and the atmosphere were great and I’m impressed by Patchett’s skill with prose. However, given my utter distaste for the protagonist, plus some huge reservations about the magical mystical primitive natives and some frankly cheap events toward the end of the book, I can’t recommend it in good conscience. For me, it’s probably a one-star book — three stars for writing quality, no stars for character or plot.

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