Tag Archives: 5 stars

#34: Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Begun: 4/27/2011
Finished: 4/27/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

loved this book. Full stop. Loved. It. My initial reaction, that it’s just like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, was echoed right there on the jacket blurb (which I had failed to notice before beginning).

Caveat: I have not read Walls’ famous memoir The Glass Castle. I understand that it’s largely about how dysfunctional and neglectful her mother and father were. Walls started out intending to write this book about her mother’s childhood on a ranch, but ended up writing about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a remarkable character. Spending early childhood living in a dugout house on a river in Texas, at fifteen she rode 500 miles to take her first teaching job. She took herself off to Chicago on her own to get a diploma, returned to take more teaching jobs, broke horses, and with her husband ran a 160,000 ranch, where their two children were born.

Walls describes the book as a “true life novel.” She has gathered information about her grandmother’s life (she died when Walls was eight) from family oral history and discovered that most of it was corroborated by other sources, but where it conflicted, she went with the oral history. She writes the book first-person in her grandmother’s voice, and what emerges is an intriguingly intimate account of this woman’s life. Some things are gone into in detail, others are skimmed over, as it is with memory and stories told about the past. The life Lily led is itself fascinating enough. She is a complex narrator, resourceful and independent, but with flaws. She is severe and even cold with her children, pragmatic to the point of being mercenary, and short-tempered. I’m guessing most people found her intimidating, difficult and forbidding, but I found myself wishing I could have met her myself.

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#32: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Begun: 4/6/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

You know when you’re reading a book, a long one, and you get to that point where you’re just like “Well, crap. I just have to push on through to the end, now.” I got there last night with Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and as a direct result I only got three hours’ sleep.

Some books are agreeable sorts. They ask for some time with you, for you to share some emotions or thoughts as you read them. This book? Not enough. This book would like very much to take you by the throat and do some breathplay on you while playing experimental German techno music in the background. It would like to barge into your kitchen and start baking something crazy, like bacon avocado cookies. It would really appreciate the opportunity to play Red Rover with the other books because those would be some busted-ass wrists on the other team. This bookdemands an investment. A big investment. This book thinks you ought to make an informed decision and that eye protection should possibly be worn in this area.

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Any book of this length (750+ pages) is a big investment. The only question, do you get a decent return for it? For me, the answer here is “hell yes.” When you’ve just read 700+ pages and are still eyeing the diminishing thickness of pages to be read with dismay that it’ll be over soon, that’s a return on your investment. Even when you’re well aware that this book is the first of a trilogy. The Passage was my designated Big Ass Novel for April, the book I get to spend the whole month reading. It was also my Nighttable book, but after three weeks I wasn’t very far because nighttable reading tends to be sleepy time for Lori. I was only 150 pages in by last Friday, so I decided to take some weekend time and really attack it. By Sunday night I was up to page 550, and last night I picked it up intending to read another fifty or so but then Book decided that it was Not With the Having Of That and that I’d be finishing it tonight, encroaching dawn notwithstanding. For this reason, today I am functioning on three hours’ sleep. But it was worth it.

You can’t read any press about this book without hearing how much like The Stand it is. I can’t deny the comparison but the criticism to me doesn’t stand up (heh, sorry) because any book that is post-apocalyptic bears some debt to The Stand. That book is to post-apocalyptic novels what Tolkien is to fantasy-quest novels. To paraphrase a higher authority than me, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien is to fantasy what Mt. Fuji is to Japanese art. It’s either in the foreground, the background, or you can’t see it at all because you’re standing on it. That being said, there are some elements shared withThe Stand that seem a bit too similar, right down to a wise old black woman (two of them, actually), a climactic nuclear bomb, and a journey to Colorado. There are also things that seem reminiscent of “The Walking Dead” (the graphic novel, not the TV show) including a group of survivors living in an abandoned prison and a ring where outsiders are sacrificed/executed.

Basically, if you took The Stand and compressed it down, that’s the first 250 pages of this book, about which I must also say that Misleading Book Jacket Blurb is Misleading. The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is the journey of one little girl and her former FBI agent protector as they navigate the post-apocalypse. And it is. For the first 200 pages. Then the book takes a significant time leap and veers off into totally new territory.

I suppose I ought to say what it’s about. Basically, your typical Government Project Gone Awry has been trying to use a weird virus found in some bats in an Amazonian jungle to engineer immortal supersoldiers, using twelve death row inmates as test subjects, but the virus instead transforms them into “virals,” superstrong creatures kinda-sorta like vampires (although this term is rigorously avoided) who are sort of a combination of the energetic-rage-zombies of “28 Days Later” and Nosferatu. Also they glow in the dark. The virals escape and start with the killing, “taking up” (infecting) one person for each nine they just kill, and within about a month the entire Western hemisphere is overtaken. Six-year-old Amy Bellafonte, the final test subject (the one surviving Amazon project research guy thinks the virus would work better on young people), survives and becomes a sort of superhuman hybrid but not a blood-drinking viral. FBI agent Brad Wolgast hides her in an abandoned summer camp for a year until a nuclear blast kills him (kinda).

Fast forward 92 years to one surviving FEMA colony in California populated by the descendants of children who were evacuated via train at the end of the epidemic. They live in a walled compound with blazing nighttime lights to keep the virals away and have their own society. Here’s where you are asked to make an investment, because Cronin spends a good deal of time here on worldbuilding and character backstory for an entirely new cast of people, but it’s worth the time because these are the folks we’ll be with for the rest of the book and, presumably, the others. Trouble starts with two things: one, the batteries for the lights (powered by wind turbines) are dying and cannot be fixed, so soon the lights will go out for good, and two, Amy appears in the camp. She is 100 years oldish but appears about fourteen. A band of colonists sets out to find the lab Amy came from and have wacky road trip adventures involving virals and the Army and armored trains and the Republic of Texas.

Cronin rewards your patience in setting the stage for these events by making this journey from California to Colorado jam-packed with action, which he’s damn good at conveying — not too much detail nor too little — and some really great plot twists. He’s not afraid to endanger and even kill major characters so you never get too comfy. He’s a little too dependent on the chapter (or section) ending cliffhanger, which we come back from several sections later to find that what was about to happen didn’t happen at all. He also employs an authorial device I hate, namely the Omniscient Narrator Interruption to say things like “Peter was soon to learn just what Alicia was capable of!” and such, but that’s pretty infrequent. The handling of point of view is spotty and sometimes unclear, but overall the writing is serviceable. I didn’t notice it, which is my criteria for decent writing. Nothing jarred me out of the story with a Speedbump of Bad Writing.

Another reason to invoke The Stand is the writing itself, actually, which is more than a little reminiscent of King’s. It’s all about story, story, story and anything NOT story is given the enthusiastic heave-ho. The book is a little light on character, although we get to know some of them quite well, and Cronin does well with the women, i.e. they are as varied and distinct as the men and about equally represented. Still, given these criticisms, the book more than delivered on the promise it made me for my investment of about 400 pages before things really got going, which is to make those first hours worth my time in the end.

#23: Our Gang, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/25/11
Finished: 3/27/11
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

I didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I knew it was Roth’s diatribe against Nixon, I knew it was satirical, I knew it was political.  What I didn’t know was that it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable of all my reads so far as part of The Roth Project.  I didn’t know what a shift in tone it would be, how hilariously on-the-nose it would be, how intentionally ridiculous and how sharply written.

Roth concocts a scenario of a President, Tricky E. Dixon, who comes out in favor of the rights of the unborn, taking it to extremes when he proposes allowing the unborn to vote.  Then he takes it into a top-secret meeting between Dixon and his top advisors when a group of Boy Scouts protests outside the White House, and further into Dixon’s assassination and eventual campaign to be the new Devil down in Hell.  If all this sounds absurd and over-the-top, it definitely is.  It is also a treatise on the sneaky seduction of political spin and doublespeak.  It is all too easy to see how semantic arguments used here in absurdity are used in reality in more subtle circumstances.  I spent the whole read (it is a short book and a fast read) grinning and shaking my head at the sheer audacity of the political commentary.  I’m not normally much for political books, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Books #11-15: The Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan

Begun: 1/21/2011
Finished: 2/25/2011
Format: Paperback & Kindle
Rating: 5/5

Let it never be said that I am not a huge, devoted Harry Potter fangirl.  There was a time when I was deeply involved in the fandom, a dedicated Potterphile.  I was famous for it in the bookstore where I worked.  I organized our store’s HP events, including the midnight release of “Order of the Phoenix.”  I was the employee that customers were directed toward when they had Potter questions, or needed recommendations for their kids who’d read the books and needed something new.  I’ve gone to midnight showings of all the films, gone to midnight releases of all the books.  I’ve written truly epic amounts of HP fanfiction.  The HP books touched my life in very real ways that I can’t really overstate.  Because of those books I met one of my best friends, because of those books (and the fanfiction I wrote based on them) I got many actual paying writing jobs.  My chance decision to pick up “Sorcerer’s Stone” and read it was a boulder dropped into the pond of my life that did not just generate ripples, but tidal waves.  This may all seem overstated.  Trust me.  It isn’t.

So reading books that are clearly aimed at the post-Potter audience is somewhat bittersweet for me.  In some ways, nothing will ever be Potter again.  In other ways, Potter has its detractions.  I am now six years removed from the intensity of my former Potter fandom, and while I am still devoted to the books, distance has given me perspective about some of the things I found lacking in the series, especially the later books when Rowling began to suffer from Authorial Bloat Syndrome.  The way some of the crucial plot elements seemed to zoom in from left field, never having been spoken of before (masters of wands, anyone?) and how I constantly yearned for Harry to just be good at something.  The lack of development of worthy female characters and Rowling’s failure at writing believable teen romance always bugged me.

Rick Riordan really doesn’t even pretend that he isn’t doing anything other than writing a series intended for the Potter audience.  For crying out loud, his protagonist is a black-haired twelve-year-old with green eyes.  The parallels are considerable.  But if we can just agree that the concept is more than a little reminiscent of Potter, we can move on.  And hey…the concept of Potter is more than a little reminiscent of “The Dark is Rising,” you know.  Nothing new under the sun.  And as the PJ books progress, the connections to Potter grow dimmer and dimmer.

I loved these books.  In some ways…and I can’t believe I’m saying this…I liked them better than Potter.  They aren’t as detailed and satisfying in some ways, but basically, everything that I felt Potter stumbled at, the PJATO books succeeds at.

Potter wins for sheer originality.  Riordan’s creativity at taking the elements of Greek mythology and grafting them onto the modern world is great, but in Potter, Rowling created an entire world out of whole cloth.  This is the woman who thought up Quidditch, and Muggles, and Hogwarts.  You just can’t beat that.  There’s a much greater connection to our world in PJATO, whereas in Potter we mostly feel as if we’re in the bubble of the wizarding world.

Riordan’s storytelling is tighter.  Little is extraneous.  If someone or something shows up in book one they’re going to keep showing up.  Nobody appears out of nowhere, never having been mentioned before, with some crucial role to play.  They’ve already been established before that happens.  He does rely a bit too heavily on rescues in the nick of time, but it’s usually earned.  The fifth book is more than half taken up by an epic battle, and it’s perfectly paced with extended battle sequences interspersed with small breathers to get new information or develop characters.

And Riordan has it all OVER Rowling for female characters.  In Potter there’s Hermione and then there’s…Hermione.  The only other girls who even come close to being real characters are Luna and Ginny, and even they aren’t much more than sketches.  In PJATO there’s first and foremost Annabeth, Percy’s best friend, but there’s also Clarisse, and Silena, and Thalia, and Percy’s mom, and Bianca, and many others.  The gender equality is much better in PJATO.  And as a longtime Harry/Hermione shipper who was frustrated by that aspect of Potter, it was deeply satisfying that in PJATO, the Harry and Hermione characters actually get together, successfully building on their friendship for five books until it’s clear to them and everyone else that they love each other and will be together.  And it’s just so…emotionally satisfying.  Annabeth takes a dagger in the arm to save Percy’s life.  Percy gives up the offer of godhood because he doesn’t want to be separated from her.

Finally, the thing that resonated with me the most is that Percy has actual skills.  I wanted Harry to be competent at stuff so badly, and he really never was.  Even he always said that the only thing he was really good at was Quidditch.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I remember how much we were all thrilled when in Order of the Phoenix Harry started teaching defensive magic to the others.  Sadly this competence seemed to fade in later books.  So much of what Harry accomplishes is by chance, or through the skill of others, or by an accident of birth.  I think Rowling intended it like that.  She didn’t want to write a superhuman character who had mad battle skills.   She wanted to show that something other than prodigious magical talent could make you into a hero, that it could come from your character or the people you chose to surround yourself with.  I get that.  But dammit, sometimes I just wanted Harry to show some chops and whip some badassery on somebody.

Percy?  He shows chops.  He has formidable powers of his own that no one else has.  He’s skilled with a sword.  He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s powerful, and becomes more and more so as the books progress.  He definitely whips the badassery.  By the fifth book, he has become invincible thanks to a dip in the river Styx, with only one spot on his body where he can be harmed, and he is the unchallenged leader of the army of demigods opposing the Titan army.  He isn’t superhuman.  But he has skills.  And I hungered for that in Potter and never got it.

These books will not occupy a place in my life that Potter did.  I won’t be writing any fanfiction (though I’ve read a bit).  I won’t be participating in the fandom.  Nothing about PJATO is going to change my life.  Probably.  They’re not Potter.  But I’ll sure as heck be re-reading them.  And I’ll soon be reading the first book of Riordan’s sequel series, and waiting eagerly for the next book, which comes out this fall.

Book #2: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I have a deep and abiding love for facts.

All kind of facts.  Facts about science, and history, and pop culture, and anything else you can think of.  If you’re knowledgeable on some subject, I want to hear about it, because I love collecting facts.  I would like to have ALL THE FACTS, thank you very much.

For this reason, books like Bryson’s latest, At Home: A Short History of Private Life are like crack to me.  Crack, I tell you, CRACK.  Yes, I do want to hear about the lives of servants in nineteenth century English country homes.  I absolutely want to hear about the history of sanitation in London, or the cholera epidemic.  I honestly do want to read about how electric lights transformed civilization and how the entire structure of modern society can be traced to the simple practice of crop rotation. 

GIVE ME ALL THE FACTS.

So I loved this book greatly and with vastness.  Some reviewers remarked that it lacked Bryson’s trademark wry humor, and it is true that it’s lighter on humor and stronger on data than his other books, but that’s okay.  I don’t mind.  Because, facts.

When Bryson wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was amazed (as a scientist) at how adeptly he took many disparate scientific disciplines and wove them together, demonstrating that they are not, in fact, disparate at all, but that everything is connected.  He does the same in At Home, weaving a tapestry of history, sociology, culture, architecture and industry to demonstrate how daily life changes with and is a reflection of large-scale civilization.  I dig that, man.

5 out of 5 stars