Friday, September 27, 2013

In Which I Return to Literature Again

As the year (more quickly than I would wish) draws to a close I finally reached my goal of reading 50 novels this year. I started in December of 2012 and as of last night I closed the cover of book number 50. Doesn't mean I'll stop reading of course; I actually plan to see how long I can keep this trend of intense novel reading up. But I take a moment to pause and review a few of the books I've read since my last literature posting. 

Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

This book caught my eye as I was hurriedly walking through my local library. My mother was waiting in the car and my only goal was to pick up a few things that had come in.  The words "gameboard" and "gods" are like triggers for me: they caused my fast paced walk to slow to a crawl as my head turned and I literally went, "oooooh." The inside cover only fueled my desire to read: post apocalyptic future, somewhat of a dystopia, and a land where all religion has been banned or is under careful scrutiny from government officials. This is the first book in the "Age of X" series and while it has some pitfalls, the over all story is decent enough to warrant my investment in future books.
Mae Koskinen is part of the elite supersoilders who guard and protect the Republic of North America, a technologically similar, near future, utopia. The Republic is set up like a beacon to the rest of the world, the so-called provinces where religion is in decline but has neither been outlawed nor strictly regulated. The novel opens with Mae being reassigned as "guard dog" of an exiled "religious hunter" (for lack of a better phrase). Justin March was sent to Panama several years ago when he began to question the job he was doing. He was always the best at enforcing the Republic's anti-religious laws but after an odd experience he begins to wonder if the universe is really totally devoid of mythic beings. If Mae is the world's best solider, then Justin is the world's best scholar. He can see solutions to puzzles; he has an excellent memory (except for one tiny very annoying thing that I'll get to) and despite being a gambler, a womanizer and a drunk, has a caring if slightly rouge-ish side. He also has two ravens inside his head that talk to him at all times. Mae and Justin are forced to work together when a string of ritualistic murders show signs of mysticism and magic that require Justin's trained eye. Mae is sent to get him out of exile, bring him home, and make sure nothing happens to him while he's investigating. That is the general plot but underneath all that is prophecy and interference from gods who bide their time on the fringes of the world. The murders take the whole book to solve but you can tell they have little bearing on the series except as proof of the gods work in our world. The writing is easy enough that you don't have to focus solely on each word and parse out its meaning. It flows nicely, with some humor, some sex, and some intrigue. I really enjoyed the scenes where Justin and Mae went to religious temples and spoke to the priests. The book is far from perfect, however. First, while Mead keeps her excess characters to a minimum, the ones that are highlighted are presented as very important but actually contribute little to the overall plot. Tessa, for example, is Justin's protegee from Panama. A provincial who is supposed to be--in many ways-- the reader and demonstrate the kinda of awesome wonder and fear of this new Republic world, Tessa's given very little to do except go to school and show how bigoted the children of the Republic are and occasionally provide plot changing information through happenstance. Her role is somewhere between child deus ex machina and to show that Justin has compassion and love in him, just hidden under a lot of alcohol. My second problem was world building. For the most part, Mead's world is believable but it is as if she gives you a taste of the whole world and then sticks you in only one part of it. I want to know more about the barbarian places and provinces. And come to think of it, more about the wealthy places that seem to be their own duchy or kingdom. The way the world is set up was never fully explained to my satisfaction. And finally, Justin "conveniently" forgets something no die hard religious scholar would. I may only have a masters in religion but even I could figure out who was controlling Justin from the start. Justin has two ravens inside his head with modernized versions of their Nordic names. Of course he owes allegiance to Odin. That is billed as the greater mystery but honestly it wasn't and Justin should have known that. Instead it gets written off as Justin learned about Odin and his ravens somewhere along the line in his studies but just forgot. But this whole book has billed him as someone with an excellent memory and the world's greatest religion scholar.
Overall Grade: B

The Shades of London (books 1 and 2) by Maureen Johnson

I've known about Maureen Johnson for a few years now. She is one of John Green's best friends and writing buddies and she'd subbed for him on the Vlogbrothers channel a few times. Also, I follow her on Twitter mostly for the photos of her dog Zelda and because she's pretty hysterical. But until recently I never bothered to pick up any of her books. Honestly, nothing stood out to me as particularly interesting. Then I read a brief synopsis of this first book of the "Shades of London" series titled The Name of the Star and it finally piqued my interest enough. Before an actual review, however, I want to clarify a few things about how I perceive Johnson's writings. Johnson has been a writer for 10 years and has published 11 books. While I'm not questioning her work ethic, it does show that she's the sort of writer who can churn out stories, one after the other without needing much time to put them together. It's not bad per se but it's also not conducive to really thought out detailed literature. Reading her was a breath of fresh air as the book I was previously engrossed in was almost 1000 pages in length and required most of my mental faculties to get through. There is certainly a market for Johnson's style of writing. While we might call Green and Cassandra Clare "young adult" I would put Johnson into just the "young" category. Less developed, less compelling, it may be, but it can be fun reading. In my head, you read Johnson when it's a dreary rainy day outside and you just want to cuddle up on the couch with a book. Her characters are more cardboard cutouts that don't endear themselves to me, for the most part and are simply there to provide narration, or because the central character needs them for other purposes. For example, at this point I couldn't even tell you the name or any sort of characterization of the supposed love interest for the first book and half of the second. It's not because that character alone was that unmemorable, the same is true for the roommate and most of the others. Johnson's writing has its place to be sure but it's also not the greatest most life changing book you'll ever read.
To begin, The Name of the Star follows Aurora (Rory) as she and her parents move to England. Rory will be starting a private school--getting the full London experience as it were. The first half of the novel is mostly about Rory finding her way around, her classes, the cultural divides that separate Americans from the British. Her roommate and her get on smashingly but again I couldn't tell you anything about the roommate other than she's British and seems to be laced with stereotypical upper class British traits--polite to a fault, never shouts, cordial, likes tea. With her lead character Rory, it's also obvious that she piled on as many types of stereotypes as she could. Rory's from the south so she a lot of quirks--she loves food, she talks super fast, she's a little zany (you can see Johnson's own sense of humor here which was nice) and she has a host of odd family members and neighbors though I have to wonder how people in the south react to this sort of stereotypical treatment. The meat of the book begins as a string of murders happen around London. Unlike other murders, these seem to be copycats of the famous Jack the Ripper murders a few centuries ago. The history of Jack the Ripper is really nicely laid out, rather piecemeal, by the supposed love interest (still can't remember his name). Along the way, Rory (as we might expect) gets caught up in these murders because it turns out that she can see ghosts. It's important to note that Rory was not born with this ability--at least not really. Rory's ability is rather sheer dumb luck: she won the genetic lottery by having the right genes that lead to this but then she also chocked on a piece of food at dinner one night, almost died, and thus her superpower abilities came into their own. That's it. It's never rationally explained and is almost too comical to take seriously. Because of her new ability she meets the ghost squad, a group of top secret police officers whose job it is to track down the Jack the Ripper ghost and destroy him. The last 50 pages are as intense as I think Johnson is capable of writing and it has a nice cliffhanger.
This leads to the second book The Madness Underneath. This book is less than 300 pages which should probably tell you something already. Nothing really happens. Or maybe that's not totally accurate. Stuff happens, basic plot driven things: more murders, a sort of conspiracy, some school stuff. But a lot of the book is devoted to the internal struggles and feelings of Rory post trauma of book one. Rory is the most developed character, as she should be, but we spent way too much inside her head in this book. I suspect it was to make up for the lack of development in every other person. Rory has returned to Wexford, her school, and is trying to get on with her life and deal with new pressures as the ghost squad wants to use her and the abilities she gained at the end of the first book. Rory goes to therapy, she hunts down clues, she talks to ghosts, she doesn't do her homework. It's a typical middle book that only serves as a bridge to the third book--which isn't out yet. As harsh as I may be coming across, this series is perfectly fine and does have some positives. Johnson is pretty funny. I laughed out loud quite a bit during the first book. She makes some fun popular culture references to the Spice Girls and Doctor Who. Rory is a fun character even if she's more a caricature than a character. Johnson spends a lot of time in London and it shows; her love and knowledge of the city it totally palpable and as someone who has been to London, it made me want to go back. Absolute easy reading that you won't remember a few weeks after you've read it, but still perfect rainy day material.
Overall Grade: C+

The Golem and Jinni   By Helene Wecker

This is a beautifully written debut novel from Wecker. It's part mythological fantasy and part historical fiction. The amount of historical research she had to do must have been staggering and for that alone I take off my proverbial cap. The books presents the idea of two mythical figures--a golem (a Jewish clay person who is ruled by a master) and a jinni (a nomadic fire spirit most closely aligned with the Arab world)--in New York city the height of the second wave of immigration. During this wave, millions upon millions of culturally diverse immigrants flooded America, mostly coming from areas such as Poland, Eastern Europe, Italy and the Near East. They set up little neighborhoods in big cities, coalescing as a people, maintaining their own cultural autonomy while trying to integrate into American society. In a great many ways that is what this book is really about. Yes, there is myth and mysticism and magic, but I think (for the most part) it's more of a metaphor for life in the Americas for the immigrants who were really looked down upon by the natural born. Chava is a golem--her only desire is to serve her master, protect him at all costs and be the perfect wife. But on their crossing to America her master dies only a few hours after she awakes. Masterless she may be but this does not prevent her from picking up the desires of every other person with which she comes into contact. Ahmad is a jinni trapped for several hundred years in a flask until one day he is released by a workman. He is a hot blooded spirit who resents having to be cooped up in buildings and longs for the life when he could come and go as he pleases. Along the way both creatures try to fit into their new lives, one in the Jewish neighborhood and one in the Syrian. What I really admired in the book was how natural it felt for the two creatures to have the struggles they would be having trying to fit in. Chava, by her nature, is steadfast and at times unyielding. Her whole nature is to cater to the whims of others, but because of the danger of anyone finding out what she is, she must hide it. She is restless and bored and is only content when given tasks to do. She is stoic and solid but has no idea how she is supposed to adapt--she works too fast and too well; she doesn't sleep; she doesn't know how to mourn or what the customs are; she anticipates peoples needs before they can speak them. Like many immigrants she tries very hard to become one with her surroundings but somehow always manages to stick out. Ahmad, by contrast cares little for convention or custom or tradition and only wants to be able to live the way he chooses. He is rash and headstrong and rarely thinks of others. Like fire, his temper can burn you if you get too close. One fated night they meet and from there attempt a very uncertain friendship, trying to understand the others point of view on life. There are other characters that fill out the narrative quite nicely--the rabbi who has compassion on Chava, the tinsmith who offers Ahmad a home and work, the social worker who has socialist sympathies, the coffee shop owner who lends a sympathetic ear and then tucks away all the information until it can be shared, the former doctor reduced to living as an ice cream seller, and the mad magician who seeks life eternal. One of the most endearing aspects of the book is the way that the American life is shown and lived with very few appearances from the WASP New York set. The story of America isn't just of the white Anglo-Saxon male rising to the top of his heap, but it's the story of those who crossed oceans and were humiliated at Ellis Island and then still tried to make a living in America where they were treated as second class citizens. The book reads well and is both fun and philosophical. The last third, however, is where I had issues. Suddenly the book gives way to its mythic undertones and forgets the realness that Wecker set up. Magic formulas, past lives, incantations, it all gets to be a bit hectic when so much of the book has felt real. Much of the final action needed to be simplified and reduced as it started to drag. The ending itself was a little too "happily ever after" but maybe that can be forgiven since it is a fantasy mythic type. The characters are colorful and well written and even if minor, Wecker brings them to life with very interesting and diverse backstories.
Overall Grade: A-

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.

This book is 1000 pages long. I think when I finished, I took two Tylenol and went to bed. This is the follow up to Rothfuss's first "Kingkiller Chronicles" book The Name of the Wind, which I've reviewed already and really loved. I honestly don't even know where to start with this one. First off, Mr. Rothfuss, you have some brilliant ideas. Your use of myth and storytelling and the idea of how stories change over time and adapt to the people who are telling them is compelling and interesting and speaks to me on a scholarly level. But oh man, do you need a better editor who is capable of telling you "no." The first 400 pages of this book is almost an exact retelling of the your entire first book. I don't mean that Kvothe reminds the reader of what happens--I mean it happens all over again. Kvothe is poor, Kvothe goes to school, Kvothe plays music, Kvothe is clever, Kvothe and Ambrose do not see eye to eye, Kvothe shows how smart he is, Kvothe spends time with Deena, Kvothe narrowly escapes punishment. It's the exact same structure and plot of something I've already read. Instead of focusing on developing the mystery that is the central focus of this book, it is bogged down in repetition--even if it is well written repetition. When Kvothe finally leaves school to set out on his own for a bit, the story becomes even more weighted. First there is the time he spends proving how clever he is to some major lordling. Then there is the time he spends proving how clever he is walking with bandits. Seriously, an awful amount of walking to nowhere with a lot of pointless moments of learning to interact with people--or something. And then they capture the bandits (I guess that was the point of the walking) with some really cool magic and then Kvothe gets sucked into the land of the Fae and has sex for 64 pages. I'm not kidding. There are some cool bits of Fae magic and a lot of intrigue but most of the time he's just having sex. And then he goes on another tangent to become a super ninja, where he maybe picks up ONE valuable piece of information and then goes on ANOTHER tangent involving more bandits and THEN finally go home. The mystery of who the Chandrian are and why they killed his parents is what is supposed to be driving this. But instead Kvothe goes on a huge circular journey where we learn really nothing more, and then he ends up back at school as if the whole thing never happened and now we wait for the final book. Which I fear will be closer to 2000 pages. And still I can't outright hate this book. The writing is spectacular. And the mystery and levels of symbols and interpretation and how stories change over time is really phenomenal, but Rothfuss has got to edit himself.
Overall Grade: B-

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