Category Archives: Book Reviews

Four Book Reviews

When I opened up this page, I had no idea if I’d written anything this morning. I think I tackled my Zahnie story and managed about 50 words before I went to look up the birth date of a relative, and that got my focus out of hand. I did genealogy for the next 3 1/2 hours. I’m nothing if not distractable.

So now its 10:45 PM, a full 15 hours since I sat down to write, and I discovered I had very little to say. To get my 750 words captured, I decided to write down a few thoughts about the books I’d read recently.

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones. Mortal Instruments; Book 1. A teenage girl becomes embroiled with a group of Shadow Hunters, monster fighters. A truly uninspired plot. Predictable at every moment. The protagonist was uninspiring and bland. The protagonist’s love interest: well, let’s just say that the relationship turned very Luke-and-Leia at the end. How horrible was the plot? There was even a “Leia, I am your father. Search yourself–you know it to be true” moment between the main character and the antagonist. She was betrayed by her mentor/teacher. I saw all Clare’s plot twists several chapters before they happened. There was tons of humor about bad cooking and bad poetry and teenage angst. It all fell flat. She does manage to write LGBT couples with without batting an eye. She treats romantic relationships with an extremely heavy hand. I won’t be reading the second, or fifth, or even the 6th book in the series. I know this cast of characters have become extremely popular. I know of a person who actually changed their name (the protagonist is called Clary, short for Clarissa) because she loved the Mortal Instruments books so much. Maybe I’m being too harsh. But this book seems to be a creepy excited fangirl overreaction. Kick me if I ever change my name because I loved a book too much. 1 star of 5.

Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is all about English magic, which has disappeared and two magicians who are bringing the magic back. It reads like a period piece written by Jane Austen, but with extra snark. The book had a fun sardonic tone throughout. The primary characters are cool. Even the minor characters are interesting. She injects anecdotes and stories about magic users that are comical throughout the novel. There are also characters pulled through real history: Duke Wellington. Napoleon. Lord (prime minister) Liverpool. Crazy King George III. The system of magic is interesting. Faeries are not the fun, fluttery kind. They are mysterious and scary as hell. Clarke’s book is part alternate history, part drawing-room novel, and part faerie tale. Brilliant, funny, readable from beginning to end. You never know what the plot will bring from one moment to the next. Entirely original. 5 Stars of 5.

Victoria Aveyard. Red Queen. In this book’s world, there are two kinds of people: Reds and Silvers. The Reds live in perpetual slave status to the socially superior Silvers. Silvers have magic powers (and silver blood; thus their name). The story is about one Red girl who is thrust into the middle of Silver Court society. The book is very good. The climax was fantastic. I blasted through the final 2 hours. I was taken along for the ride, hating the bad guys, just like the author hoped. There was a betrayal at the end, which propelled us into the final third of the book. I saw it coming from early on, even though there was no mention of it. This made me simultaneously upset, because she should have given the reader an indication this would happen , or possibly because I saw it coming so far in advance. The characters are compelling, and Red Queen has possibly cleared the way for a romance in a sequel. I don’t know; maybe a sequel has been written already. 4 Stars of 5.

V.E. Schwab. A darker Shade of Magic. Schwab imagines a world where four versions of London are overlaid onto one another, in different realities. Only the protagonist, a magician called Kell, can travel between the four. This book is unexpectedly well done. The author is not afraid of beating up her characters; particularly Kell. It was refreshing to get a heroine out of Delilah who isn’t just a love interest. In my opinion, this should happen more often in both film and written fiction. Delilah holds her own throughout; and is quite frequently the more interesting of the two protagonists. And there are deaths in the book. Schwab is unafraid to kill people off. I had a few quibbles about her tendency jumping between narrative points of view. The Antagonists (the King and Queen of White London) are sufficiently evil to satisfy even the most evil of the evil-seeking folks. In fact, they may have been a bit too flat. If they had been given a bit more motivation than “I love power,” it may have Strengthened the story. Schwab has a beautiful narrative voice. In fact within 10 pages of starting the novel, I thought “It’s a book I’d like to say I’d written.” Apart from one or two quibbles about anachronisms (Gray London OUR 1816 London) and a truly evil Lord of the Rings-style ring of power artifact, I was very happy with the overall effect. I look forward to reading something else by her in the future. 4 Stars of 5.

The Monster at the End of This Blog

When I was very young, my great grandmother owned a children’s book by Sesame Street showrunner Jon Stone, called The Monster at the end of This Book. Now, a little archiving is in order: Sesame Street began playing on PBS in 1969. The book was written in 1971. And my life in Sacramento ended in 1975, I believe. So, in five years, even proper women like Great Grandma Barnes had heard of Sesame Street enough to, at least, procure an offshoot book by these guys.

Continue reading The Monster at the End of This Blog

If I Could Talk to the Animals…

I took a walk through our neighborhood this morning, past the golf course, and nearly to Alex’s high school. It’s about a mile to get there.

I “discovered” the trail about a week ago, on a perfectly beautiful April evening when I wanted to get out of the house just relax. Discovered is a bit of a misleading term because I could hit Lake Audubon Trail with a pine cone from our bedroom window. I just never bothered. We’ve lived here sixteen months, and I hadn’t yet felt energetic enough,to explore our neighborhood. I’ve been using the CPAP machine for 2 weeks. It took about 7 days before I felt enough energy to get out and enjoy the day.

Continue reading If I Could Talk to the Animals…

Team of Rivals [Book Review]

Yesterday morning, exactly 151 years and 1 day after the death of Abraham Lincoln, I finished the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. It would not have been so auspicious to me, but I would have finished the last chapter (the one where Doris Kearns Goodwin relates his assassination) 1 day earlier, but I didn’t know if I could handle the last hour of listening to the audiobook, late at night, and having The Good President up and die on me in Ford’s Theatre.

Continue reading Team of Rivals [Book Review]

Devil in the White City [book review]

I just finished The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Published in 2003, Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the rights to turn it into a film that will reportedly be directed by Martin Scorsese.

It follows two different stories. The first is the account of the building of the Chicago World’s Fair (known officially as the World’s Columbian Exposition) in 1892.

The second story is of H.H. Holmes, the most well-known alias of the serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, who used the fair to lure victims to his hotel.

The book is quite engaging. I came for anecdotes on super-creepy Holmes, and stayed for the World’s Fair.

It was a miracle the thing was even built. The entire project was hampered by such external forces as committees, political pressure groups, worker’s strikes, huge egos, bad weather, an economic depression and time limitations (less two years to complete such a thing on soggy Chicago soil).

At the same time, Holmes built his macabre “World’s Fair Hotel” to lure his (mostly female) victims. The building had airtight guest rooms that doubled as gas chambers, labyrinthine hallways that led to nowhere, and a crematorium in the basement.

A large part of the story of the Fair is told from the perspectives of Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief architect, and of Frederic Law Olmstead (the designer of New York City’s Central Park). Holmes’s story is recounted from the viewpoint of Holmes himself as well as his victims and lovers. This is a style that resembles Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (he even admits his debt to that book), Erik Larson often spends time in the minds of the characters, making the whole book come across more like a novel than a historical narrative.

I wondered at his depiction of Holmes, the remorseless psychopath without any conscience. I’m still mulling it over in my head. Are there truly people out there who have no empathy, but can mimic it perfectly? In the 19th century they called the condition “moral insanity.” One study reports that 1% of all males have psychopathic tendencies while far less women. Do psychopaths always wear “masks” as the influential psychologist Cleckley suggests? he describes “[the] psychopathic person as outwardly a perfect mimic of a normally functioning person, able to mask or disguise the fundamental lack of internal personality structure.” He also asserts that “despite the seemingly sincere, intelligent, even charming external presentation, internally the psychopathic person does not have the ability to experience genuine emotions.” Do I know people like that? devil white city

A few facts I learned about the time:

  • The first Ferris wheel can be credited with saving the fair. Admission to the fair was 25¢ while a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel was 50¢. It rose 80m above the ground and had 36 cars that could hold 60 people each (2100 people). It survived strong winds and storms.
  • The buildings of the fair were considered the height of American architecture at the time, and were conceived of by the country’s leading architects. They were also impermanent; they were all vandalized or demolished by the turn of the century.
  • Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show set up alongside the fair; they were not allowed a place inside the grounds because it was feared it would ruin the fair’s architectural cohesion.
  • Belly dancing, considered horribly scandalous, was introduced to the US at the time. So was shredded wheat and Juicy Fruit gum.
  • AC current was used to power electric devices at the fair. This would become the industry standard, much to Edison’s chagrin (AC was patented by Tesla/Westinghouse).
  • Dozens, if not hundreds, of workers died during the building of the fair from fires, broken skulls, and electrocutions.
  • Chicago was a filthy, filthy place, overwhelmed with the stench of the Union Stockyards.
  • Over 27,000,000 visited the fair in the 6 months it was open. Teddy Roosevelt visited the fair. So did Scott Joplin, Antonín Dvorák, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Dreiser. Mark Twain did not attend because he came down with the flu, and he spent 11 days in his Chicago hotel room before returning home.
  • Cash was king. The fair could be beautiful, but if it did not turn a profit, it was considered unsuccessful. They paid off their loans in August, thanks to the installation of Ferris Wheel in June, and canny marketing by Sol Bloom.
  • The fair ended with a bang and a sizzle. The day before closing ceremonies, a crazed assassin killed Chicago’s mayor. All was cancelled. A few months later, angry mobs set fire to the buildings of the fair during the Pullman Strikes, effectively ending the fair.
  • Ferris never equalled or surpassed his Wheel. He moved it to the north side of chicago at great expense, and again to the St Louis World’s Fair in 1906. It was later demolished for scrap.

In all, a good book. Very interesting. The Holmes story falls a bit flat at the end, as if he were rushing to finish the book.

4 stars out of 5.

What I’m Reading

I’ve recently been watching documentaries and reading books about the turn of the century. Not this century; the last one.

I find the period between 1875-1920 endlessly fascinating. Think of the number of inventions that became available in that time. Technological progress was so rapid as to be nearly astounding. Continue reading What I’m Reading

There Are Great Children’s Stories… and Then There’s This

“Dad, there was a book in our cereal” are seven words I haven’t heard in a very long time, at least in that order. But it happened today. They don’t put things in cereal like they did when I was a kid. If you couldn’t dump out your Count Chocula and find the plastic fangs that turn you into a Choc-u-holic vampire, you weren’t going through a normal childhood. Of course, many spankings ensued.

Continue reading There Are Great Children’s Stories… and Then There’s This

Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon [Book Review]

It’s been a long time since I’ve discovered a novel that tugged at me the way Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life did. A young lad called Cory, grows up in a literally-magical Alabama town in 1964. Early one morning, Cory and his father witness an auto plummeting into a lake. His father dives in to save the driver, only to discover that the man was handcuffed naked to the steering wheel, his throat nearly severed by a garotte wire. The dead man haunts his dreams. At the core of the novel, we are led by Cory and his pals to discover who in the has murdered this unknown man. It serves to tie together the novel; each chapter could easily be publishable as its own short story, which reads like a faceted thing somewhat reminiscent with Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and, I realize belatedly, Robert Newton Peck’s much-loved Soup novels.

Part of the strength of Boy’s Life is how firmly it ties itself in the bedrock of 1964. The United States has just lost JFK. Kids hide under their desks in worries of nuclear attack. The town is, for all intents, still segregated (the town’s poet laureate rhymes “kiss his face” with “George Wall-lace”). The population is still very conscious of World War II and Vietnam is but a kernel on the horizon. Continue reading Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon [Book Review]

Mort, by Terry Pratchett [Book review]

I’ve been avoiding the work of Terry Pratchett for several years. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because, when I learned about him, my first thoughts were “I already read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Maybe my thoughts strained against the idea that fantasy should be treated with humor and a light touch. I’ll probably never know, but, as of today, I’m no longer unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett. I read (on the recommendation of—don’t ask) Pratchett’s fourth novel: a book called Mort. The book takes place in the fantasy land called Discworld, which rides on the back of four elephants, who of course stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin. The entire land is surrounded by a waterfall that pours forever into space.

Mort. Terry Pratchett.
Mort. Terry Pratchett.

The hero of the story is an all-elbows teenaged redhead named Mortimer, or “Mort” as he often reminds acquaintances. His father believes him to be likeable, but generally worthless, so he takes him to the marketplace to begin an apprenticeship to anyone who will have him. His new master, it turns out, is Death, in all his dark-cloaked, skeleton-faced scythe-wielding badness. Death, it turns out, has need of a vacation as much as an apprentice. Death is lonely and friendless; apart from his adopted daughter and aged servant Albert, he has no interaction with anyone except when it is time for them to die. Much too soon, Death hands the reins over to the young lad.

As in all apprentice stories, there are rules about these things: you can’t muck about with fate. When it’s time for someone to go, it’s time for them to go. To do anything else could cause a rift in space/time. Also, as in all apprentice stories, the lad almost immediately takes a liking to a princess and (maybe inadvertently?) ends the life of her assassin instead of her. Meanwhile, where Death (WHO ALWAYS SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS!) tries a series of experiments with the things humans find pleasurable: first tying fishing flies, then sampling dozens of alcoholic beverages, quizzing a celebrant about the concept of “fun,” and finally becoming a short-order cook at a local pub. Death’s interview with the employment agent provided one of the funniest scenes of the book, and the gem of a line: “It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever… Have you thought of going into teaching?”

Pratchet doesn’t often let his comedy get in the way of telling the story. From chapter to chapter, I never was sure what I’d read next. Pratchett occasionally allows his narrator to break through the Fourth Wall: at one point, making reference to ancient literature like Shakespeare, or ancient lore (St George and the Dragon, for example). Often Death speaks of modern science or science-fiction ideas, which befuddle the decidedly-medieval populace of Discworld. Sometimes you get the feeling the author is trying too hard to land a laugh. We read incidental rambles like this one: “He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles — kingons, or possibly queons — that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed” and they occur slightly too often for my taste. Sometimes he also goes for the easy laugh: “Sodomy non sapiens,” said Albert under his breath. “What does that mean?” “I’m buggered if I know.” As I said, though, none of this manages to detract from the story. I found myself grinning throughout the novel. Pratchett has considerable facility with similes. Early in the book, Mort is described as having “the same talent for horticulture as you’d find in a dead starfish,” with a “body that is only marginally under its owner’s control—it seemed to have been made out of knees.” And thus it begins. The line is not an auspicious one as Adams calling the people of earth a race “who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea” Still, I found Pratchett’s cadence for humor, and it wasn’t overdone or didn’t detract from the story. In that by itself, my fears were never realized. I enjoyed the novel, and would read a few more of the many, many Discworld books he’s written.

Four stars of Five

Assassin’s Quest [review]

Robin Hobb. Assassin's quest

Assassin’s Quest is the final book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. It has one of the most fantastic opening chapters I’ve ever read in the genre. I don’t think I’m spoiling to anything that, to avoid death at the end of book 2, the protagonist FitzChivalry Farseer, has implanted his soul inside that of his companion wolf Nighteyes. He is reintroduced to his body, and nursed back to health, by Burrich, who must He must reteach him everything. Hobb does an excellent job walking us through the most basic tasks: having been a wolf for a time, Fitz has lost his day-to-day moments of social etiquette, such as using the bathroom outside, and washing, and eating with one’s fingers. Slowly Fitz regains these memories, and his sole desire is to kill Prince Regal, the uncle who put him in this state. Continue reading Assassin’s Quest [review]