December 31, 2012

2012 Year in Review

2012 Year in Review

Despite the date on the post, here I am writing this review in May 2014, in a vastly different place in my life than I was at any point during the year. In the unlikely event that anyone ever reads this (hello, intrepid reader!), I'll offer a quick apology. Things- or my reading habits, at least- seemed to go off the rails a bit in late 2012 (as you'll see from the relative scarcity of posts). I don't know why I stopped reading with as much urgency as I had before, but I never really gave myself an opportunity to step outside of the blog, reconsider, and forge ahead. I'm doing that now.

That said, I have very vivid memories of many of the books I read throughout that year, including several that I might not have heard of were it not for a science fiction and fantasy book club. From Fail-Safe to Channel Zero, it's obvious that my interest in genre works was high, and both of those books are among those that made a strong impression of me. Looking back on the list, however, the titles that strike me the most are Sex on the Moon, Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and Channel Zero. I remember the first as a fun romp and resolved to read Ben Mezrich's other books, which I have not, as yet, done. The latter title reaffirmed my belief in the power of graphic narrative, and some of its stark images still dance around in my head from time to time. Just yesterday, as a matter of fact, I was attempting to recall the name of the subversive comics I had read as I pored over a shelf of graphic novels at a large Chicago library. I didn't come up with the title at that time, but the memory clearly lingers. It is Connie Willis's works that had the most permanent affect on my reading psyche, however; I almost cannot believe that it has been so long since I first became intimately acquainted with her works. She continues to stun and amaze me, and a copy of Doomsday Book currently sits among my other recently borrowed library books. I'm astonished at the lasting spell that she has cast over me and am forever grateful that I discovered her work in 2012.

These books may have passed through my hands several years and at least two public library systems ago, but I'm grateful that my thoughts, meager as they are, remained on my hard drive. I look forward to revisiting many of these books and, once more, to reviewing many others.

December 27, 2012

Book 42: Channel Zero

Channel Zero: The Complete Collection
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

In Channel Zero, a brief comic series, Brian Wood tells the story of a near-future, heavily corporate America that is as terrifyingly relevant now as it was at the time of its creation around a decade ago. Add a stark, black-and-white landscape, often rendered in numerous gritty styles and complete with hidden messages, and the result is a unified, uncompromising vision. The story itself can be a bit difficult to follow occasionally, with displaced narration and outside news reports contributing to a well-conceived totality of vision, contained in a neat package that ties up its own story but leaves plenty of room for interpretation and expansion. The narrative jumps right into the thick of the atmosphere, successfully setting the tone and setting but making the characters and narrative seem a bit more distant. This distance affects the story throughout, and it is sometimes unclear whether Wood intended the comic as an exploration of a possible future (and, naturally, a criticism of certain elements of the present) or as a character study set within that period. The conflict between these two desires is evident as the side stories, intriguing as they are, interrupt progress through the main storyline and may have readers searching for direct ties that are not necessarily to be found. A number of characters are introduced with brief, factual biographies, only to pop up for only a panel or two in the final pages. While this is part of the ultimate point that Wood makes in Channel Zero's original run, it can be disorienting and distracting rather than empowering and explanatory. In the end, the story is powerful enough to resonate despite some flaws in the telling, and the art is entirely complementary to the narrative, with its convincing, if bleak, vision of a corporate, sanitized United States.

In addition to the original Channel Zero run, this volume contains concept artwork, additional short stories, and a prequel story about the main protagonist. Though the prequel, like the initial run, muddles the timeline and thus confuses the reader, it explains some aspects of the main work without overshadowing it. Becky Cloonan's artwork, again in monochrome, fits the content and Wood's original style for Channel Zero, while providing a more clean look for an arguably cleaner point in the future history. Throughout Channel Zero and its accompanying stories and background material, Wood is nothing if not earnest, and though his stories occasionally seem over-dramatic and alienating, he compromises none of the raw emotion that powers the story and its characters. Each distinct work within the collection contributes unquestionably to a whole vision cut of one cloth, and if some bits are misplaced within Channel Zero, they do cohere to Wood's larger vision, an impressive accomplishment for a first work in the graphic medium. Channel Zero: The Complete Collection makes an immediate visual and political impression on readers, and is presented with an urgency that trumps most of its flaws, like the message (which has its own faults) or not.

Grade: A-

December 22, 2012

Book 41: Life Goes On

Life Goes On
Hans Keilson

Life Goes On is one of that peculiar class of novels published in Germany on the very eve of Hitler's ascendance, and it dissects the effects of the country's economic unraveling during the Weimar era through the autobiographical lens of Hans Keilson. Though Keilson was Jewish and fled Germany a few years after the Nazi takeover, politics plays very little part in this novel of everyday life, which focuses more on individual lives and reactions than on macroeconomics and international, or even national, politics. Socialists are given a brief cameo, likely make briefer by the book's post-January 1933 publication date, but the story focuses on a middle-class, moderately successful shopkeeper and his small family. The occasional use of "Mother" and "Father" in place of personal names do humanize the story, but often present confusion, particularly in the early pages where readers may struggle to grasp who the main characters are, and how many they are in number. The characters are at once specific and generalized, and though the adult couple will appeal as a stand-in for a certain class of Germans, their son Albrecht is a bit more difficult to pin down. He grows significantly throughout the course of the book, but remains consistently out of reach and difficult to relate to, perhaps because of his frequent apathy and inability to understand the forces at work around him. The novel itself is similarly difficult to digest as the narrative progresses at a pace that echoes the general apathy of the time, which, unfortunately, can make it a bit boring. Time flows at an inconsistent speed, with few pivotal events to serve as guideposts or break the spell, and while this method of storytelling may reflect the times themselves, it hardly makes for compelling, page-turning consumption. In its execution as well as its content, the book is a time capsule, an almost stream-of-consciousness work that explores the tepidness of interwar Germany in both style and content. Life Goes On is most compelling as a product of its times, an intensely personal view of pre-Nazi Germany that may fail to fully captivate or resonate with modern audiences.

Grade: B+

December 17, 2012

Book 40: The Absolutist

The Abosolutist
John Boyne

The most poignant images of World War I, forgotten as it is, remain with us today, as we imagine young men gearing up for horrors they- and the world- couldn't possibly expect, only to be mown down by the hundreds of thousands while racing from trench to trench in an often futile battle for inches or yards. All wars, and many other situations besides, breed fear, but something about the First World War seems especially suited for the study of fear and its effects on human emotions and behavior. Fast-forward to today's expanding exploration of queer narratives, modern sensibilities about pacifism and non-combatants, and add it to the continuing fascination with the trenches, and John Boyne's novel The Absolutist is one result, a not-quite-revisionist story of love, fear, and the lasting effects of war and associated guilt. The first-person narrative moves seamlessly from past-tense 1919 to present-tense 1916, with each tense lending an appropriate sense of reflection or urgency, respectively. The novel is imbued with a sense of regret and sadness, not unique to war narratives and indeed hardly unusual for a book about World War I, and it becomes obvious from the beginning that this regret will serve as the driving force behind the story, and little clues scattered throughout allow the reader to slowly put the pieces together just before the narrator does, producing a sometimes-satisfying, sometimes-frustrating conversation between the reader and the book. Following the story just ahead of the actual story can help put various pieces into their emotional context, but it also results in some intended big reveals losing the punch that would make this novel absolutely excel. By the time the war story reaches its inevitable conclusion, that conclusion feels not only inevitable but painfully obvious, putting the book off-pace and robbing it of the raw emotional power on which it relies.

That this is followed by an entirely unsatisfactory and utterly off-putting coda does a disservice to the book's characters and readers alike, forcing a particular reading of the novel that may not please all readers. There certainly isn't anything wrong with an author taking a particular view of a work, or indeed a character reacting in an understandably reactive, self-pitying way to a turn of events, but the final lines of The Absolutist seemed to me to be a particular critical reading shoehorned into the novel. This does an enormous disservice to readers, who are thus prevented from honestly reacting to a heretofore ambiguous chain of events and who are instead forced to glean a specific moral meaning to the story, one which I simply did not believe had been there. The narrator (and author, and even many readers) may indeed have believed it, but the way in which John Boyne portrays that realization unfairly casts a stone-hard interpretation on the preceding novel, which would otherwise serve as an intriguing point of contention. By setting a queer story in an overtly un-queer time, Boyne invited controversy and debate, and the war narrative's closing line of dialogue seems to set up a forever-ambiguous point of personal contention for the narrator and for readers alike, only for this delicately balanced nuanced to be blown away, somewhat literally, by a clumsy epilogue. The utterly silly post-facto framework could even be excused if not for this great literary sin, which immediately re-casts the novel, which should be placed in nothing sturdier than sand, into solid stone. It may be difficult to separate my personal (and, obviously, quite unfavorable) reaction from Boyne's intent and actual words on the page, but the effect of reading the final pages greatly diminished the novel in my eyes, turning something beautiful and poetically tragic into self-serving whining. Again, this is not uncharacteristic for the narrator or the book's various genres (war story, novel of mourning, etc.), but its handling seems to unfairly foreclose discussion and debate. Expected sad ending aside, this ending is simply rotten.

Does the poorly executed conclusion sully the entire reading experience? Not necessarily. IT does force readers like me to reconsider their reactions, and it invites re-readings and re-examination, if not in the way Boyne may have intended. It is difficult to erase what was to me a terrible ending, but Boyne does successfully juggle real-time war and retrospective pathos throughout the book. He often tips his hand just a bit too early, but the cards are solid, and the characters are realistic and generally sympathetic, even if they appear a bit convenient to modern readers and contemporary politics. The book feels like, but functions well as, an old war story tailored for the present generation. The Absolutist is, despite a lackluster finish, a compelling story of love and betrayal, life and loss, the First World War and its aftermath for its soldiers and for those they sometimes left behind.

Grade: A-

December 13, 2012

Book 39: Escape from Camp 14

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden

North Korea is, by nearly all accounts, a harrowing place to live, where residents are bound by the twin (and linked) oppressors of government and hunger. Society is strictly arranged into the haves and have-nots, and the lowest of all are imprisoned in the country's forced labor camps, where Shin In Geun (now Shin Dong-hyuk) was born and spent much of his early life. Blaine Harden, an American journalist, has written an English biography of Shin, based in part on Shin's previously published Korean autobiography and on extensive interviews. As a well-traveled journalist, Harden understands and acknowledges upfront the difficulties inherent in writing a factual account of torture in the world's most secretive, and closed, society. He calls overt attention to one major revision on at least two occasions, and though he does not attempt to explain the difficulties inherent in relying on human memory, he seems eager to present his story for what it is: a survivor's account, laced with relevant facts and analysis about North Korea and its defectors. While it's clear that Harden feels very strongly about human rights in North Korea (and he goes out of his way several times to remind readers of the fact), he doesn't go through pains to present Shin as a martyr, and the book, while sympathetic to Shin, does expose some dark moments in his history. Harden recognizes the differences between this story and others, and plays to its strengths, drawing on common conceptions and known facts about North Korea to build context, though some of these forays come at the expense of fluid storytelling.

Because the mere existence of the book, and Harden's prologue beyond that, gives away the story's ending, the story isn't played for suspense, which is wise, as Harden resists the urge to insert unnecessary tension. He doesn't, however, always avoid excessive theatrics or moralizations, which can occasionally intrude upon the bare-bones nature of the story and, indeed, most of its telling. His contextual explanations, while helpful, are inserted in the midst of narrative passages, and while the integration makes sense, they often break into (the brief) chapters just after those chapters began, disrupting the flow of the narrative and occasionally presenting more of a distraction than a useful addition. He often takes a big-picture view that conflicts with his laser focus on Shin's experiences, and the tension between them is often unresolved after the mid-chapter interludes. The writing itself is simple and straightforward, and Harden's restraint serves the story well. It is the power of Shin's story, and not Harden's prose, that keeps the reader effectively engaged, as is appropriate. The details themselves are predictably harrowing but are treated with a distance that reinforces the emotionless calculation that Shin relied upon for survival. Despite the obviousness of the eventual conclusion, Harden occasionally tips his hand too early and often, particularly while recounting Shin's travels beyond Camp 14's fence. The photographs are supplemented with a strange, comic-style group of illustrations depicting scenes from Camp 14 that don't quite seem to do justice to the situation. Escape from Camp 14 is a stark, straightforward account of a man's escape from North Korea's prison camps, free of unnecessary embellishments and possessing few, but generally justifiable, distractions.

Grade: A- 

November 13, 2012

Book 38: Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith

From its wealth of ideas alone, it is obvious that Norstrilia was destined to be an influential work of science fiction. Its central plot and many of the surrounding details of the setting- which pertain to diverse subjects such as genetic modification, near-immortality, and the economics of scarcity- cover many traditional science fiction tropes and pet subjects of the genre. The book can become a bit difficult to follow at times, burdened by the weight of its ideas and a loose sense of the importance of plot, but it is nonetheless worth reading for the power of its concocted reality. The inherent humor within the book, tied largely to a critique of monopolistic economic practices and an interesting twist on the Abandoned Old Earth trope, would be better received if the plot were a bit sturdier, but overall the plot is sufficient to buoy its ideas- if just barely. Norstrilia is worth reading for these ideas and for its insight into the mind of its author, but as a book laden with characters and narrative, it falls a bit flat.

Grade: B

November 10, 2012

Book 37: Nightfall

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

This novel is a continuation of the famous short story, taking its conceit a bit further and exploring in more depth what happens when complete solar darkness comes to a world that experience perpetual light for hundreds of years at a time. The novelization bears many similarities to the original story, but manages to flesh that story out in greater detail, further exploring the nature and believability of information (and misinformation) and the foundations and consequences of religious beliefs. The setting is set in compelling detail; because it is largely a proxy version of Earth with a slightly different solar arrangement, its characters and cultures are accessible. This magnifies the importance of the central problem- what happens when the sun sets on a world of perpetual light?- and allows the plot to unfold as an extended thought experiment that ultimately shines a mirror on our own societies. The book can seem a bit heavy-handed at times, but operates with enough ambiguity to provoke genuine introspection on behalf of the reader; moreover, much as it may seem distasteful to some readers (as it was always bound to be, tied so closely to religion), the ultimate resolution is realistic and offers yet more (pleasant) ambiguity. As with much classic science fiction, the characters sometimes seem drawn strictly from stock molds, but as this is a novel of Ideas the lack of truly original characterization isn't too troublesome. Also appreciated is the novel's focus both on the buildup to and outcome of disaster- readers feel an almost tangible sense of doom throughout the novel's opening section and are strongly invested in the story by the time disaster eventually rolls around. Asimov and Silverberg's continuation of Nightfall doesn't radically alter the source material but does provide an introspective, thoughtful expansion of its ideas that should please many science fiction fans.

Grade: A-

November 2, 2012

Book 36: Shadow and Light

Shadow and Light
Jonathan Rabb

This book, set a few years after the events of Rosa, continues the story of German detective Nikolai Hoffner and, in a way, interwar Germany. This installment takes place in the 1920s and, as its title suggests, uses the burgeoning German film industry as historical decoration. Though the book does a good job of focusing on its main character and his sons, who play an expanded role in this novel, Rabb's eagerness to evoke the era occasionally gets in the way of the narrative. Readers can feel the almost unseemly effects when major historical developments are dropped right into the primary narrative path, and though Rabb has clearly done a significant amount of research the details sometimes feel a bit too convenient. Just as in the previous installment, major historical figures make cameo appearances that feel too unlikely to contribute to a sense of realism, as was likely the author's intention. Likewise, Rabb goes a bit too far overboard at times in pursuit of shock value, and the horrors he depicts (though secondhand) feel a bit sadistic even for a series predicated on murder mysteries. The images do leave a lasting impression and certainly paint the right-wingers in a sufficiently horrifying light, but at times they feel exaggerated, more like props to prove a point than essential parts of the story's fabric. Nonetheless, Rabb's vision of Weimar-era Berlin is captivating, and the central stories compelling enough to maintain the reader's attention. Hoffner himself seems drawn straight from life (though biographical details are occasionally revealed in clumsy information dumps) and, ironically for a fictional character, provides a sense of realism when history seems exaggerated to suit the author's needs. Shadow and Light is far from revelatory, but provides a sufficiently interesting mystery that continues the development of its compelling lead detective in a unique historical setting.

Grade: B

October 19, 2012

Book 35: Fire Watch

Fire Watch
Connie Willis

After reading Doomsday Book and the eponymous story in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, I knew that I had to read more Connie Willis...and I was absolutely right. I don't know what it is about her stories, but Willis continually finds ways to amaze me. Perhaps it is her range- from time travel to post-apocalyptic landscapes to a more typically futuristic space station, Willis pulls it all off seamlessly. Perhaps the power of Willis's talent lies in her ability to make the science fiction conceits almost vanish behind the raw emotional power of her stories: despite sometimes employing standard science fiction tropes, these are not (merely) gee-whiz-wow tales. Willis writes fiction that should be considered alongside the work of the lit-fic critics' darlings, haunting stories that stay with you long after you turn the final page. To choose standouts in a collection like this feels at best like a hilarious understatement, but the stories that have had the strongest effect on me are the horrifying "All My Darling Daughters" (I was continually shocked by the brutality of this story, yet couldn't stop myself from reading forward) and "A Letter from the Clearys," which might actually be more devastating despite employing a far more subtle emotional touch. Fire Watch may have been Connie Willis's first published group of short stories, but it is simply superb, the work of a living master.

Grade: A

September 29, 2012

Book 34: Mathletics

Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sport
John D. Barrow

In a way, everything kind of boils down to mathematics. As someone who is normally sports-crazed, and even more so in an Olympic year, the intersection of physics and human physicality is one that has always fascinated me. When I saw Mathletics, therefore, I needed no second look to immediately yank it off of the shelf. Within, I found a group of loosely related, not-at-all organized tidbits about math and its effects on aspects of numerous sports, a marginally disappointing collection that nonetheless lived up to its billing, if a bit too literally. It's unclear who Barrow's intended audience is, and his general audience may be put off by the complex mathematical calculations and "trust me" attitude. Surely more of the math could be put in layman's terms? The frenetic pace of the book doesn’t help much, either. Though Barrow's inclination to organize the book as a series of vignettes is appreciated, readers are whipped back and forth between types of questions and types of sports, never able to gain a foothold on the subject at hand before the next approaches. And, most disappointingly, the book minimizes the magic of sports and fails to capture the intangibles that make sports so enjoyable and unpredictable. Sure, this is a book about the hard math behind human achievement, but in execution it sucks more of the life out of the subject than may have been necessary. Chapters on certain subjects, such as the real weight of individual events in sports such as the decathlon and modern pentathlon, are enlightening and intriguing, but most of the book passes by in a flurry of numbers and variables, without many conclusions actually sticking in the reader's mind. Mathletics lives up to its billing, but it's a billing that sells the subject matter short, and one that might alienate the most interested readers.

Grade: B-

September 17, 2012

Book 33: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
Edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg

Time travel is a tricky and multifaceted concept, and the idea of an anthology consisting solely of stories that consider the concept and (crucially) its potential ramifications was immediately alluring to me. I'm not qualified to determine whether these stories represent the best of the subgenre's many offerings, but I've encountered enough fiction to know that this collection represents a fine and varied representation of time travel stories. While there are the usual expected duds, as with any short story collection (Robert Silverberg's "Sailing to Byzantium" was absolutely inscrutable to me, despite the promise of a great premise lurking somewhere within), the proportion of mind-blowing greatness to said less spectacular fare was pleasantly high. Almost every story represented a fresh take on the core concept, and the book has a good balance of stories that alternately provide humor, emotional insight, fear, and/or sheer wonder. The best of the bunch, for me, was Connie Willis's "Fire Watch." Though it represents a fairly straightforward narrative, something about the story grabbed me immediately and still hasn't let go; it is a sterling example of the ways in which science fiction can, because of (not despite) its clever conceits, explore the depths of human emotion and the fundamental nature of humanity. Bradbury's classic "The Sound of Thunder" is present, but the omission of "All You Zombies" is a mystery to me. Regardless, The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century is a riveting collection of top-notch fiction that transcends genre while representing it admirably.

Grade: A

September 8, 2012

Book 32: Out of the Past

Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present
Neil Miller

Gay and lesbian history is still very much in flux in the contemporary United States, as evidenced by recent and foreseeable election results and court cases. Neil Miller's attempt to distill American and, to a lesser extent, western queer history is admirable in its scope, even if that scope is primarily limited to the period between 1870 and the mid-1990s. Though he focuses on the United States, Miller occasionally (but perhaps too-briefly) forays into Europe and, in one welcome instance, Japan, allowing the reader to glimpse other gay cultures and the influence they had on one another. One major problem in writing the history of a subculture, especially one as consistently castigated as various gay communities, is the temptation to retroactively define various individuals' sexualities. He admirably acknowledges the difficulties inherent in labeling those who never labeled themselves, and when focusing on particular individuals (as he often does), he presents contextual evidence for the assumptions he, alongside others, has made. His history is less of an effort to claim famous historical figures or events for homosexuality and more of an attempt to trace the development of homosexual community and societies' views thereof. Importantly, the book tracks different definitions of homosexuality, often in conjunction with greater contextual histories that capture the feel, gay and otherwise, of settings such as the Old West, interwar Europe, and San Francisco after World War II. Miller includes both grand histories of gay movements and intimate personal biographies of queer figures (suspected, admitted, or otherwise) that personalize his book, which avoids the dry, de-personalized, and sanitized feel of most sweeping histories. Equally accessible to history majors and more casual readers, Miller's book is peppered with literary excerpts and first-hand accounts that serve as useful suggestions for further reading and as miniature glimpses into the history that Miller recaptures throughout his book. Out of the Past presents a thorough and accessible overview of gay and lesbian history; though not without its flaws, it certainly is a more than adequate introduction to the topic for gays and straights alike.

Grade: A

August 24, 2012

Book 31: Finding the Game

Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer
Gwendolyn Oxenham

Out of college in her mid-twenties, Gwendolyn Oxenham, her boyfriend, and two friends set out to discover how soccer, the game she loves, connects communities around the world beyond the lights of the Premier League and the World Cup. During her journey around the world, Oxenham documented the group's attempts to find, and participate in, pickup soccer games and other non-professional matches. While her love of soccer and her appreciation of the game's ability to unite people across language and cultural barriers are evident throughout, Oxenham occasionally lapses into preachiness or misplaced self-congratulation. The book can't quite decide whether it's an exploration of the global nature of the game or a travel/self-discovery memoir. While both of these elements sometimes coexist in harmony, there is often a tension between them as the writing whips back and forth. The writing is sufficient and the passion more than enough to sustain the story as the group proceeds through its many adventures, both expected and, well, less so. From initial disappointments in Trinidad and Argentina to surprising success on the rooftops of Tokyo, Oxenham and company chase the game, but throughout much of the book there's a feeling of emptiness as the travelogue eclipses more meaningful analysis. The chapters on Iran and Israel stand out for their brilliant combination of straightforward storytelling and examination of the political ramifications of their journey. While hopeful activists praise soccer's ability to unite disparate Jewish and Palestinian communities, Oxenham witnesses a more complicated situation on the ground as sides of each ethnicity meet on the field but ultimately leave in their own isolated pockets. In Iran, the situation is more tense as the group must weather the tensions that plague any Americans visiting the country, let alone a group intent on mingling with anyone and everyone, despite the warnings and discouragement from the official tour guides. Readers will be drawn to Oxenham's obvious appreciation for soccer and for the entertaining stories of her round-the-world trip, but those hoping for Finding the Game to present a deeper examination of meaning may ultimately be disappointed.

Grade: B

August 21, 2012

Book 30: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu

Charles Yu has a lot of very interesting, and reasonably novel, ideas about time travel. Unfortunately, access to those ideas in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is restricted to those who can wade through an uncomfortably prickly thicket of over-wrought, self-important prose at the same aimless pace as the plot (such as it is) dictates. There's cleverness, to be sure, in Yu's use of his own novel within the plot, but it is played for trite, self-serving ends instead of contributing at all to the story (such as it is) or characters (such as they are). There's nothing wrong with mixing science fiction and very literary fiction, as Yu does in his novel, but this book exemplifies the way that each genre can individually go wrong; the synthesis fares little better. On the "literary" side, Yu's main character is the most transparently Mary Sue of them all, the plot plods at a pace that would make glaciers feel like gazelles, and the prose is woefully overwritten with a haughty and alienating holier-than-thou attitude. As for science fiction, this book provides a labyrinthine, half-constructed world that celebrates its incompletion and embraces a nonsense theory of time travel that is hastily, though not at all effectively, retconned in the book's final act. The science in science fiction needn't be hard, or plausible in the real world, but surely it isn't too much to ask that it is more than a convenient excuse for an author to feign seriousness and plead for nerd credibility. Surely it isn't too much to ask that it kind of makes sense?

And then there's the author himself. Yu seems to use the novel as a vehicle through which to examine and, possibly, repent for his own sins. Unfortunately, it reads as an in-joke. Everywhere Yu has a possibility to resurrect the interesting bits and cast aside his apparently insatiable need to focus endlessly on himself, he takes the book in yet another incomprehensible direction. The novel commits the worst of all possible sins: it is deliberately obtuse, constructed to make self-congratulating critics writhe with pleasure after forging some fabricated sense of meaning out of the intentionally obscure. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is alienating, insulting, and a horrific insult to literary fiction and science fiction, unifying them in a Frankenstein's monster of everything that's wrong with literature.

Grade: D

August 6, 2012

Book 29: Three and Out

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football
John U. Bacon

It's unclear why Michigan fans would really want to re-live the three years now referred to as the "Rich-Rod Era," when the perennial power's fortress came crashing down in a melodrama played out across national news outlets and computer screens. It is undeniable, however, that it is a compelling, if painful, story, and the depth of Bacon's unprecedented access certainly presents a unique opportunity to peer inside a major college football program. Bacon's respect and fondness for the program are evident, but they don't infringe on his ability to present his account with an attitude of fairness. His biases do emerge from time to time, but the book maintains an air of journalistic thoroughness. It is clear that Bacon attempted to seek accounts from all of the main players, and the book usually hesitates to draw firm conclusions without a significant amount of fact-checking and first-hand accounts. Unfortunately, however, for all that, the book often reads as a straightforward recapitulation of events that I, for one, remember quite clearly and would rather forget. What promises to be a far-reaching expose (of sorts) of big-time collegiate locker rooms becomes, instead, a list of plays, scores, and games, with the most damning inferences restricted to a preparatory chapter on the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure rather. Instead of a hard-hitting attempt to expose why Rich Rodriguez failed at Michigan (for it cannot be argued that he did), Bacon presents the same myriad of possibilities that have already been considered and argued about ad nauseum throughout the fanbase. Though Bacon clearly has the insight, information, and ability to weave a compelling account of the stakes of college football and the game's impact on modern academia, his account is merely a day-to-day type story we all know far too well, with items of interest scattered and fairly infrequent. While Bacon's inside view of major sports is appreciated, sincere, and well-written, it reads more as background than as an investigation, which is, after all, perhaps its primary purpose. It is hard, however, to read Three and Out without sensing a missed opportunity, and it's hard to know whether to credit the author for sticking fairly strictly to what he witnessed or to fault him for a lack of attempt to cast a wider net.

Grade: B+

July 24, 2012

Book 28: Titanic: The Long Night

Titanic: The Long Night
Diane Hoh

The story of the Titanic is one of historical fact that lends itself especially well to works of fiction. The grand contrast between the wealthy on the promenade deck and the nearly penniless immigrants on E Deck, the arrogance of the Gilded Age, and the well-known and lasting images of the ship's final hours all provide perfect story fodder, all without the necessity of adding anything original. This provides an interesting challenge for writers aspiring to set their stories on the liner, requiring enough originality to stimulate the imagination, but enough fealty to the well-known storylines to maintain credibility. Titanic: The Long Night errs on the side of familiarity both with regard to the ship's story and its characters, and though the book doesn't particularly suffer for it, what emerges is an oft-told tragic tale of young love. Hoh makes the usual rounds, visiting many of the usual sights around first class and a riotous party in the third class common room. The stories and characters are familiar, but compelling enough to maintain readers' attention throughout the novel, and there is a very real sense of suspense throughout, aided by the possibility that the main players might well die by the end of the novel. Though there are naturally some losses, none are particularly surprising, and the ultimate conclusion is a fitting, if expected. There are times when Hoh tries too hard to shoehorn modern politics into an earlier context, though this does make the novel more relatable for teens, who are its most appropriate, and likely its intended, audience. Despite the fact that the book treads a well-worn path, Hoh is skilled enough to create a compelling story, and the characters rise enough above stock level- though only just in many cases- to allow readers to care. In the end, the book is precisely what it aspires to be: Titanic: The Long Night is a satisfying, middle-of-the-line romantic story that efficiently utilizes the well-known facts of its setting to appeal to a modern audience.

Grade: B+

July 19, 2012

Book 27: The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why
Amanda Ripley

For situations so aptly called "unthinkable," disasters of all varieties tend to occupy a large portion of our collective imagination. Hardly a week passes by when the 24-hour news cycle isn't hysterical about an earthquake, shooting, or accident, and yet this fascination is paired with a strange reluctance to really think about these incidents from a practical perspective, ignoring why they happen and focusing instead on how we react and how we might better train ourselves to survive. Amanda Ripley briefly lays out this scenario at the beginning of her fascinating book The Unthinkable, and brilliantly answers her own call for answers. Written for a general audience, Ripley is sharp and informative without being condescending or overly technical. The book is certainly for the thinking reader, but actively engages its audience. While this buddy-buddy feel can occasionally get annoying, the book maintains its focus on practicality, never straying far from the realm of actual historical incidents and their demonstrable effects. This makes the book an effective mix of history, psychology, and neurology, written with the assistance of those involved in all aspects of disastrous incidents, from survivors to neuroscientists.

The effort to locate and directly collect survivors' testimonies lends a great deal of credibility to an otherwise casual book, and allows Ripley to create both a framework and compelling individual stories. She tells her tales is a meaningful order, utilizing a specific incident or theme as the backbone of each particular chapter and tracing human reactions from the onset of trouble (or even before) through the heat of the moment. Aside form simply making sense, the organizational scheme lends the book that sense of narrative that is so often lacking from nonfiction and insists that human nature maintains its rightful place at the center of the work. The writing is as accessible as the content, and while Ripley's interest occasionally strays, the diversions are at least interesting and tangentially related to the matter at hand. Most importantly, the book follows through on its premise, offering integrated insights into historical events and providing a basic framework both for future study and, to a lesser extent, for practical action. She is persuasive without being preachy and offers practical solutions for the problems she presents. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why is among that rare class of nonfiction books capable of informing and entertaining a wide audience of receptive readers while retaining a sense of focus, mission, and perspective.

Grade: A

July 10, 2012

Book 26: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein

As someone who thoroughly enjoys science fiction, it's somewhat embarrassing to admit that this is the first work I've read by one of the genre's giants. This book, often regarded as one of Heinlein's finest, came with a lot of heavy expectations, and it stands up fairly well, though with a few hiccups. Narrative duties fall upon a central character who speaks the lunar dialect, which is essentially a stripped-down English with some borrowed slang from other languages. The dialect seems reasonable enough as an extrapolation, but its tendency to drop articles and pronouns creates an instinctive negative reaction to the speakers, which may cause readers to doubt their intelligence. Though the problem is ameliorated with time, and particularly during long sessions with the text, the language occasionally undermines the political ideas that permeate the novel. While Heinlein absolutely excels at throwing readers directly into the setting, both temporal and physical, with remarkably efficient brevity, he is less adept at exploring the politics that form the backbone of this novel. The plot centers around the political relationships between the Moon and Earth, and much of the main characters' screen time is spent in deep discussions, which often seem reductive or naïve. On one occasion, a character strongly advises against trusting a cache of information to a computer, while both speaker and author completely fail to recognize that this kind of "mistake" is, in fact, central to the entire premise of the plot

Heinlein isn't particularly assisted by his characters, who tend toward stock molds despite some valiant efforts to differentiate them. The young gun drawn in over his head, the newly-awakened AI, the all-knowing gray-hair, and the token female are all present.  Despite these and other missteps, the plot moves along fairly briskly, especially considering its more ideological construction and focus. The politics behind the events may be introduced in a somewhat clunky manner, but the whole thing plays out believably enough, and the novel excels as a thought experiment. The utter completeness of Heinlein's vision of a future lunar colony is amazing, and he considers many subtle aspects of a prison colony finding its identity, such as the effects of a highly unbalanced gender ratio and the forms of justice available when murder by airlock is a viable solution. The societal aspects of Heinlein's future are just as interesting, if not more so, than the politics, and his handling of them displays his ability to foresee and explain without much overt prodding, an ability unseen in his handling of the politics. While modern readers will question the novel's gender politics, and rightly so, it all hangs together as a reasonable, if undesirable, possibility.  As a whole, the book is a worthy thought experiment that can spur intriguing discussions over 45 years after its initial publication. While The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress may not excel on all levels, it certainly contains enough interesting fodder to justify its place on a list of high-ranking, lasting science fiction stories, even if it doesn't warrant quite as much praise as it has garnered.

Grade: A-

July 3, 2012

Book 25: Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse: A Novel
Daniel H. Wilson

The possible- and, some say, inevitable, sentience of artificial intelligence certainly isn't the most original way for an author to begin an apocalyptic tale, yet each robot story seems to tell us something about ourselves and, perhaps, what makes life unique. One would expect Daniel H. Wilson, who has a Ph.D. in robotics, to have a particularly interesting perspective on the idea of a robot uprising. Though Robopocalypse does entertain some interesting notions about the technical possibilities of robotics, however, all that it really delivers is a thin skeleton, without any satisfying thematic or character-based elements to elevate the book beyond a mere piquing of the scientific interest. Wilson first errs in the book's form, a kind of segmented post-facto history assembled by (naturally) one of the main human players in the drama. Nothing is inherently wrong with this set-up, and it worked wonderfully in World War Z, but from the beginning it feels clumsy and forced, a bit too self-conscious on both the main narrator and author's parts. We begin not with a feeling of suspense or impending doom, but with the reassurance that everything turns out all right, thus robbing the main narrative of much of its power. Aware that everything turns out all right, readers are less inclined to truly invest in the psychological uncertainties that a proper apocalypse thrives upon. To make matters worse, each section is introduced and concluded with a note from our historian, and while they largely succeed to place events within their respective context, they are painfully reductive and, particularly pre-"Zero Hour", childishly leading. Wilson keeps earnestly promising that certain characters will be vital in the New War and talking up his own story selection, and while this may be something that an experienced soldier might say when retelling his recent history, it is unsatisfying in the hands of an author who should know better. Again, Wilson fails to build any kind of suspense or dramatic resonance, instead constantly reminding readers that he, the author, is in charge of the story at hand, and that he has oh-so-cleverly created (wait for it!) an intertwined, global-scale plot.

Even more disastrous than these cutesy asides are the individual narrative voices. While I can appreciate the attempt at soldierly lingo or a Southern drawl in each first-person chapter, the numerous voices are surprisingly, er, robotic. And for some unfathomable, bizarre reason, the stories are told in present tense. Each and every one. Whether a police interview about a recent crime or a robot's log, the authors are present and accounted for, even when recounting past events. The effect is horrific, especially when paired with a misguided insistence on first person narration for a book whose entire conceit is that its constituent stories are appearing to the framing narrator via a computer. While it's true that people may recount stories using a mixture of tenses ("So, I'm sitting there when x finally shows up"), the existence of the framing narrative as well as the constant asides continually remind readers that the events of the book are occurring in the past. Wherefore, then, the false urgency? All suspense has already been drained from the book anyway, with the continual assurances that this character is important and that event turned out correctly and the author knows what he's doing, okay. It's absolutely maddening, and makes what should be either a breezy or deeply philosophical novel an absolute slog at times. Instead of character development and world building, we get transparent, ineffective gimmicks.

That the book is written so poorly is a shame, because it is evident throughout that Wilson has, in fact, put a lot of thought into his particular robot apocalypse, and he is able to effortlessly drop readers straight into that world when he stops trying so hard to sell his story. He utilizes a good mixture of familiar technology, foreseeable developments, and slight exaggerations to create a near future that is utterly believable, one that would, in the hands of a more competent writer,  force us to re-think our current relationship with technology. Instead, what we get is a lot of intriguing technological developments wrapped up in an insufficient narrative full of cardboard characters. Worse yet, there is no discernible theme. Why, exactly, does the robotic arch-nemesis decide to destroy humanity? There are some hints as to his motives, but I fear that Wilson mistakes a lack of sufficient development for something akin to subtlety. While the slap-bang aspects of the narrative are good enough to keep readers engaged despite a host of flaws, the book's ultimate conclusions, or lack thereof, are ultimately disappointing, and a work that should have excelled is instead relegated to the back corners of the brain. Those things Wilson does best- create compelling near-future technology, weave an interconnected plot- are crowded out by the book's basic writing flaws, wherein the compelling becomes sadly mundane. Robopocalypse posits an interesting future in an uninteresting way, and is a bit too caught up in its potential strengths to actually draw upon them; it is a novel of ideas but not, sadly, of engagement with them.

Grade: C+

June 23, 2012

Book 24: Rosa

Jonathan Rabb

What do you get when you take a  somewhat disgruntled, experienced police detective, a volatile Central European country teetering on the brink of political disaster, a brutal crime, and hints of corruption? Jonathan Rabb's novel Rosa indeed has the classic elements of a noir mystery, and successfully weaves them into the tapestry of pre-Weimar Germany. Detective Nikolai Hoffner is at once unique and standard, a no-nonsense policeman with his own deep character faults who can nonetheless be counted upon to do the right thing. Though he alternately comes across as a cardboard cutout and as a fully fleshed character, he is sufficiently interesting and complex to continually drive the story forward. So it is with the plot, divided into two main halves but placed within the scope of plausible- if slightly unlikely- historical fact. The story combines glimpses into Hoffner's personal life and past with a cascade of discoveries that reveal a much more complex case than either the main characters or the reader initially assumed. Though there is little that is surprising within Rosa, it boasts a strong cast of supporting characters and a nice mid-story plot twist that adds depth and historical interest along with a hint of originality that sets this book apart. Though Rabb easily falls into the historical cameo trap, involving unsavory characters from the future Nazi Germany as well as- somewhat less plausibly- Albert Einstein, he knows his stuff, and convincingly portrays postwar Berlin with the assistance of a strong supporting cast. While there is nothing to particularly recommend the prose, Rabb is efficient and effective at revealing details and maintaining suspense without wielding too much authorial dictatorship. Regardless, the book is tightly plotted, and Rabb should be commended for refusing to allow too many gotcha moments- everything fits together neatly, but appropriately, without undue editorial wrangling. Sure, the scope gets a bit out of hand at times, but can one really erase knowledge of Germany's near future? The book manages to posit an alternate history without vitally altering anything of paramount significance, and gains some thematic depth and historical resonance in the process.  Ultimately, Rosa hits all the right notes and creates a convincing scene and story, satisfactory to mystery fans and historians alike.

Grade: A-

June 11, 2012

Book 23: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall
Bill Willingham, et al.

After reading the first volume of collected Fables comics, I dove into this anthology, which rewinds the general narrative a bit and takes a look at some main players before the events in the main story began. Though it was published between two later volumes from the main plot line, and though I had only read one major story arc, I found myself immediately engrossed in the stories and, more importantly, in the characters. This, of course, is no accident, as the whole premise of the Fables series is that, well, we know the characters already, or are at least familiar with their oft-told stories. What is remarkable, however, is how coherently these tales hang together and how seamlessly they play off of the familiar histories. As Bill Willingham writes in his introduction, there is very little internal Fables backstory necessary to enjoy these stories and to understand their greater implications. And for those familiar with Willingham's re-tellings, these short stories not only continue the tradition of re-thinking fairy tales and legends, but also play off of future events and characterizations readers will already know. Just about anyone could pick this book up without having any idea that Fables actually existed, and still enjoy the storytelling, artwork, and overall narrative effect. The idea of re-hashing well-known stories certainly isn't new, and the trope's recent popularity has forced would-be re-inventors to reach sufficient levels of depth and originality; 1001 Nights of Snowfall does this, and does it in spades, all while remaining accessible and providing an entry point for new readers.

One reason why Fables is so intriguing is its use of a greater narrative framework both within this collection and around the individual stories that take place within the universe. This clever development allows characters from a thousand different fantasy realms and human cultures to interact and, indeed, to cooperate. It is this rich background that allows the Fables mythology to exist, and it is this catastrophic turn of events that provides the narrative impetus for each of the stories within this collection. The collection itself is bound by its own narrative arc that benefits a bit from knowledge of the modern-day Fables setting, but this knowledge only adds a bit of a knowing nod rather than being essential to the stories. Each story focuses on a character or characters from our well-known folk tales, and most offer a Fables-specific rethinking of the classic tale, though the opener is a straightforward, modern-day reevaluation of the typical Snow White story, a bit tedious perhaps given the current inundation of Snow White reboots, but refreshing and modern nonetheless. The other stories are just familiar enough to make readers comfortable, yet original enough to present something new and, often, emotionally riveting.

What is most remarkable, however, is that a collection with such strong plotting, if not particularly riveting dialogue, has another strength completely: its art. Graphic novel skeptics should be immediately convinced by the stunning array of artistic talent on display within. The short story format allows a number of artists to lend their eyes and sensibilities to Willingham's innovations, and it is delightful to see how different artists envision these classic characters and how their styles affect the storytelling- and reading- experience. And skeptics take heart: only one story is illustrated in what one might call a typical superhero style, and each story's visual experience is entirely different, making for refreshing changes of pace as well as thoughtful re-calibrations for each story. The differences serve to highlight the ways in which these are at once familiar and entirely new approaches to traditional characters. While each illustrator adds a distinctive flair to their particular tale, James Jean's art for "A Frog's-Eye View," the Frog Prince's tale, is truly transcendent. The muted palette and thick black borders combine with the characters' sheer desperation to create a formidable argument for the power of graphic narrative. The story, so unapologetically tragic, reaches a new depth of meaning through Jean's art, and while the other art is far from merely serviceable, it is this story that stands above the rest. Though none of the other stories quite reach this formidable level of synchronicity between narration, dialogue, and art, 1001 Nights of Snowfall offers nicely varied re-thinkings of well-known tales, one that simultaneously enhances the established Fables universe and offers entertainment for newcomers.

Grade: A

June 9, 2012

Book 22: Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile
Bill Willingham and Lan Medina

Fairy tale re-tellings have been a popular genre recently, but Bill Willingham's Fables graphic novel series appeared slightly ahead of the curve, both in time and in skill. It is obvious from the beginning that Willingham has constructed a fictional universe that extends far beyond this story, a functional detective narrative whose novelty lies far more in character than in plot. Though the plot, such as it is, is fairly straightforward, it is a brilliant way to introduce a wide cast of characters who will presumably take center stage in following installments. As a typical detective story, it is well constructed with plenty of twists to hold readers' interests, a functional and firmly defined narrative in which to place and develop unusual elements. Also wise is Willingham's choice to put familiar characters Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf on center stage, allowing readers to glide into this parallel reality with relative ease, while allowing the authors to highlight their chosen deviations from the traditional stories. Character development is key in Fables, and it is truly delightful to tag along with Willingham's modern, realistic re-imagining of these familiar faces, of whom Prince Charming, it must be said, is the pinnacle. Recasting the prince as a vapid and self-serving frat-boy type is fitting and insightful and inserts an element of humor into an otherwise fairly grim (ha) murder story. What is remarkable about Fables is not any of its singular elements- the dialogue, plotting, and art are all on the functional side- but the way in which they combine to create an enticing and believable world, populated with characters that are at once familiar, exotic, and new. The art is sufficient, done in a more traditional comic book style that suits the narrative well enough to stay out of the way and allow for efficient storytelling. The collected volume is also accompanied by a short story from Willingham, and though his prose leaves much to be desired, the story fleshes out some of the backstory without clogging the main narrative line, which contains just enough history to entice and explain but not enough to overwhelm the current plot. Fables: Legends in Exile is a great debut, a comic that presupposes only a basic introduction to western culture and fairy tales and one that shows remarkable restraint in creating a novel narrative fabric that will entice readers to read subsequent volumes.

Grade: A

June 1, 2012

Book 21: Marking Time

Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar
Duncan Steel

Calendars and timekeeping systems may seem at first an odd choice of subject for a book, but upon further reflection, few things impact our daily lives more strongly than time. After all, each workday begins with the tolling of a bell and the hands of the clock govern much more than we would probably like to admit. Thus is Duncan Steel's attempt at an accessible history of calendars and, to a lesser extent, time itself most welcome. Unfortunately, Steel, while apparently being an expert in his field, is also one of the most pompous, peacocks it has ever been my misfortune to read. There is good information buried deep within his purple prose, but the authorial presence is so strong within this book that I defy anyone to put up with more than a few pages before wishing to throw it and begin screaming. A harsh assessment, perhaps, but one that I think is more than justified for many reasons. First, I don't think Mr. Steel is intentionally off-putting, and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, his attempts to strike up a conversational tone with readers fall flat at best and encourage, well, unseemly thoughts at worst. Where he attempts to be conversational, he comes across only as condescending, time and again reminding his readers that it is he, indeed, who is the expert and, by the way, did you do your homework?

For Steel is not merely content to cram his narrative as chock-full of alienating math as possible (after an infuriating attempt at sarcasm denouncing the very notion of arithmetic-laden popular works!), but he has included three appendices that go into far greater depth about concepts which are, in fact, crucial to an understanding of the book. This causes several problems. First is his irritating assertion in an introductory chapter that the following concepts will be beyond the poor, pitiable reader's feeble mind unless we refer to his appendices. This, however, is usurped entirely by later passages that accuse readers of skipping the so-called "supplementary" information. If this additional information, which is indeed difficult to grasp for the mathematical layperson, is so necessary, why didn't the author or, perish the thought, the editor plunk it down in the middle of the narrative? Or why not craft a book that is actually accessible to the uninformed public, as is the stated assertion? This hints at a greater problem: the book is woefully organized, with non-sequitur pieces of unrelated trivia becoming sadly expected- though no less groan-worthy- because of their constant infiltration. The idea of introducing a complex concept by outlining the following theses and main points, which Steel maddeningly finds necessary to explain in and of itself, is admirable but highly unnecessary in a book with well-labeled chapters and named subsections. All it serves is to bore readers with a kind of repetition that is rampant throughout the book, wherein examples are flogged to death in multiple chapters and ideas are dropped simply because they might- but usually don't- fit better in another chapter. This makes the book extremely disjointed, and readers have to stop and reset almost every time a new idea is approached; this, despite the fact that hardly any of the ideas are new by the time Steel deigns to actually explain them in any depth.

All of this, plus the inexcusable condescension in nearly every sentence and abundance of insulting exclamation points, makes the book nearly unreadable. Should one venture beyond the language, there is some valuable historical and scientific information to be had, though woe betide the poor scholar tempted to wrangle with Steel's idea of a historical argument. He may be, and apparently is, a brilliant scientist, but a historian capable of convincing argumentation he is not, a problem that directly impacts many of his frankly bizarre historical assertions. There may be a hint of truth to the idea that the date of Easter was a major sticking point between the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, and I am inclined to trust his retro-calculation of the possible date of Jesus's birth, but the assertion that the English wished to colonize Virginia because it lies on some sort of magical latitude line is so patently absurd and poorly supported that I actually laughed out loud, even after hearing him out. Coincidences may provide fodder for interesting and even heretical thoughts, but Steel seems so focused on his novel hypothesis that he ignores, oh, pretty much every other hint of historical context. Mix this with his obvious contempt for religion, and it's difficult to take him quite so seriously, bringing us back to a preening narrative with very little actual substance. I wanted to like this book. Oh, how I wanted to enjoy the book and, perhaps, learn something. I hate to be so harsh but, unfortunately, Making Time is so heavily clogged with the author's unfriendly self-awareness that it is nearly useless in a practical sense, with every possible redeeming quality mercilessly squeezed out by needless pompousness and unrelated trivia.

Grade: D+

May 22, 2012

Book 20: Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
Connie Willis

Connie Willis pulled out all the stops for this dynamo of a novel, utilizing such ordinarily disparate elements as a post-quasi-apocalypse near future, a deadly contagion, and time travel. Yet though its narrative action is divided between two fairly disparate temporal settings, Doomsday Book maintains a fairly urgent sense of suspense, a remarkable feat to accomplish in any 550-page book. Though there are times when the pace slows considerably, Willis is careful to pull back and switch settings, always seeming to change just when the current story becomes the slightest bit tiresome or when the reader begins to get curious about the concurrent story. Willis also does a good job of handling narrative synchronicity, vital when juggling stories that take place in a future present and in the Middle Ages, where an intrepid time traveler has managed to go while on winter holiday at Oxford. Though any time travel system has its peculiar quirks, the one in this particular book has its rules fairly clearly outlined early enough that readers are inclined to believe it, and to accept a strange intertwining of past and present events, which crucially move along at a similar rate. And though the thematic link between the historical destination and the future is more obvious than insightful, it packs a dramatic wallop. Willis also explores the potential difficulties faced by a time traveler and- not so subtly, mind- highlights some of the necessary impossibilities faced by any historians, allowing her temporal voyage to highlight both the differences and similarities between our times and those past. That she manages to do this without becoming preachy is a testament to the author's restraint and, in another way, to the strength of her characters. Not everyone is likeable, but these seem to be living humans, not caricatures, and they all serve their respective purposes superbly. Even more remarkable is the strength of the medieval characters, and the author's ability to make them seem both of their times and relatable to ours, again without too much pomp or undue over-attention. Though the story can seem to drag at times, the book simultaneously seems to read quickly, and the accelerated pace of the third book is much appreciated after a not-so-suspenseful attempt at a Big Reveal. Regardless, everything about the book is executed nicely, with effective prose and obvious- and appreciated- deliberation. Doomsday Book can be a bit of a slog in the middle, but it is a remarkably executed hybrid novel well deserving of its many accolades.

Grade: A-

May 8, 2012

Book 19: Mockingjay

Suzanne Collins

I'm not sure whether it's easy or incredibly difficult to properly follow up on such a prominent and well-written series as the Hunger Games books, but in Mockingjay Suzanne Collins suitably, if not brilliantly, wraps up the loose ends and brings the series to what feels like an inevitable, but appropriate, conclusion. We rejoin our heroes a while after the cliffhanger, revelatory, but ultimately unsurprising ending of Catching Fire, where they're firmly embedded in a typical dystopian good-versus-evil plot. Though much of this book, like its predecessors, operates in a highly simplified moral fabric, Collins mercifully throws an ambiguous wrench in the operation, forcing readers to re-think things a bit and, by the end, everything becomes far from simple. Though she is far from a master of subtlety, Collins is able to construct characters and a plot with considerable depth. Much appreciated is her handling of the books' central romantic triangle, which resolves itself in an incredibly realistic way. These things seldom escape the feeling that they are forced upon the characters in question, and to have teenagers acting like actual teenagers, but also like themselves, is refreshing. Also refreshing is the author's continuing willingness to utilize brutal violence: she has placed Katniss and company in the middle of a brutal war for control over Panem, and she does not shy away from the implications of this. The violence, however, almost always feels necessary to advance the plot or enhance character development, and though the book strangely drags despite its internal sense of urgency, nothing feels terribly misplaced within. The result, then, is a sometimes contemplative, sometimes high-octane conclusion that is ultimately satisfying, if a bit simplistic and, like its companions, predictable. The series is, as a whole, remarkably consistent, with no precipitous decline (or increase) in quality, though the same problems seem to surface within each book, as do their strengths. Mockingjay successfully resumes and concludes the Hunger Games trilogy, providing a satisfactory ending without straying too far from the first two books' best qualities or most frustrating faults.

Grade: A-

May 6, 2012

Book 18: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins

So, how best to follow up a reasonably self-contained bestseller about such a dismal future that it requires children to fight to the death annually for the happy consumption of an unbelievably coddled ruling class? Readers of The Hunger Games or any of its cousins in the world of literary dystopias won't be particularly surprised at the twists Collins takes in Catching Fire, but the sequel is suitably grim and maintains a sufficient, if tenuous, grip on originality to make it enjoyable, if slightly un-challenging. We open, suitably enough, a while after the events of the first book have had a chance to create new tensions across Panem, and though this forces Collins to tell much of the intervening story through flashbacks, it allows heroine (and narrator) Katniss to jump directly into the thick of things, again employing the urgent present tense narration that drives the story along though it is prone to second-book stagnation. The story fits nicely alongside that of the first book, and the particular plot point that occupies much of the book's second half presents a finely pointed jab at the dystopian Capitol's rule that oh-so-carefully treads the line between surprisingly subtle and just a tad too obvious

Just like its predecessor, however, Catching Fire displays the author's frankly disturbing talent for cooking up sadistic twists and turns, again much appreciated in a young adult novel that does not shrink away from displaying the full, nasty range of human capabilities. The central conceits of the 75th Hunger Games, both the special quality shared by its participants and the arena itself, are captivating, even if the grand climax and, indeed, the general progress of the plot, leaves a bit to be desired. There are, of course, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching moments that fully captivate readers, and they may more make up for those that seem merely convenient. The teenage leads are predictably emotional, yet realistic enough to prevent any severe resentment by the reader. Katniss does succumb at times to the whiny, wishy-washy kind of teenage girl one expects, but Collins knows how to maintain dramatic tension and character development without allowing anything, or anyone, to get too carried away. And thus, the love story at the heart of much of Catching Fire rings true. Katniss is flawed, and a bit nearsighted, but she seems, above all, real. Whether this makes her likable or callous is another debate, but she is certainly complex and multi-dimensional, and she more than makes up for the occasional one-dimensionality of her supporting cast. And despite the occasional feeling that Panem is populated by stock characters, a few simply leap off of the page, with unexpected complexity developing from unexpected directions and stagnation, sadly, stalling in some quarters where development is sorely needed. Catching Fire is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, sacrificing a bit of nuance for screen-ready simplicity but satisfying nonetheless, despite the final pages' indications that the series is headed for groan-worthy predictability.

Grade: A-