Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I've been a fan of King for many years. I've read dozens of his books over the years, my favorites being The Gunslinger Series, The Stand, and of course It.

The story of Under the Dome is pretty simple; Chester's Mill, a small town in Maine, is suddenly and inexplicably encased in an invisible, unbreakable, impermeable dome. As the small town adjusts to its new isolated existence, things quickly begin to unravel for the citizens of Chester's Mill. And within a week, things unravel completely.

I loved the characters in this book, they are incredibly distinct and memorable. This book has a LARGE cast of characters, and King manages to make them each feel real. There is also a very sharp line between the good characters and the bad characters. Typically I would find this polarization to be a little off-putting. I like moral ambiguity in books, and characters that are hard to figure out. But the distinct good/bad characters in Under the Dome are a delight to read about. The good guys are likable and brave, and they do the right thing even when it's the hard choice, and the bad guys are just downright evil, and in this book, it just works.

The town itself is arguably the lead character in this book, and this works very well as a storytelling technique, you really feel for the little town, when something bad happens to the town, as a reader, you really empathize with the town. This was also a very appealing part of the book.

The only issue I take with this book is the payoff at the end. The lead-up to the final section of the book is exquisite, but the actual end left me feeling a little let down. I don't know what I expected, and I feel that expectations are often a curse to have when reading a book. But the ending of this book was not King's best work.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. It's a really fun read, and it moves at a breakneck speed, right from the very beginning. Even though I wasn't crazy about the end, I really connected with the characters, and I felt real sorrow and loss when the book ended. As my aunt said to me: I'll really miss my friends from Chester's Mill.

NOTE: I purchased the Audiobook version of this book for a road-trip I took to Kentucky, and I have to gush about the Narrator; Raul Esparza rivals Neil Gaiman as my top audiobook narrators. He manages to do many distinct voices (both male and female), without coming off too cheesy. This is a hard thing to do, and he does a great job with it. I don't listen to Audiobooks all that often, but I know how critical a good narrator is, and this particular book doesn't disappoint.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

I don't read a ton of non-fiction. I like the creative license one can take within the fictionalized genre and prefer fiction based on facts usually. That being said, there are certain real things that interest me too much to allow any fiction to invade; the state of our planet/way of life is one of them.

My knowledge of the environment and external factors that affect is pretty limited. I know what the Average Joe knows - pollution is bad, recycling is good, and our way of life is slowly strangling the planet. So, I picked up Friedman's book to get a better perspective on our situation and who's doing what to help the planet out. I expected a lot of science and some finger-pointing with a simple solution to fixing everything...that's just not how it works.

Friedman breaks down the global environmental issues into key parts ranging from energy consumption to our dependence on oil. He explains why each part has its own set of problems and then talks strategy for lessen the problem. He doesn't solve our environmental troubles, he strategizes on ways to improve upon them. I found this approach very refreshing. Educate me on an issue and then open up a discussion on making it better, that's how you're going to get me interested in what's going on. Don't feed me an absolute solution because there probably isn't one.

Also discussed in depth is the role the U.S. can play in addressing these environmental problems, especially our dependence on "dirty" energy. The U.S. has an opportunity to shoot out in front of other countries as a provider of "clean" energy thus reestablishing ourselves as an innovator and leader in global development. Friedman's call to action in the book was strong and well-written, but most of it it was logical. Just like his proposed strategies for altering our energy dependence, nothing is too radical or too hypothetical. What the man says makes sense. Not only that, it's stuff anybody can understand and support. Friedman doesn't ask us to abandon our cars right now and build a wind turbine in our backyard, but he does ask us to speak up and demand our government pass incentives and provide funding to enable research and development of cleaner energy and more efficient processes.

While there were times I found my mind wandering as I read, overall, this book held just the right combination of passion and intelligence to be extremely engaging. I couldn't help talking about what I was learning with everyone. This book made me understand that I can play a role in saving the world and I finished the book with hope for changes to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fables Graphic Novel Series - Adversary Storyline, Volumes 1-12 by Bill Willingham, et al.

The Fables series is a comic book for the masses. There isn't a person out there who's unfamiliar with the motley crew assembled in this engaging series.

You're introduced to a reality where all fabled characters exist. They've lived on worlds of their own for - well for an indeterminate amount of time. Our world, known as the "Mundane" world because of our lack of magic, is just another place occupying space alongside all these others. The fables happily lived separate, doing their own thing, until an unknown adversary begins conquering the fabled worlds - killing, capturing, and forcing into exile all the characters from our favorite childhood stories.

The fables flee to our world and, under the guide of some powerful magic, assume normal "human" lives in New York City with a farm in upstate New York for all the talking animals. The hope is to get back home one day, to defeat this adversary, but the process is slow and the fables are forced to create a functioning community in our mundane world to survive.

Volume One begins with the fable community having been up and running for a long time. King Cole is the mayor with Snow White as his right-hand "man." Boy Blue and Bufkin (a flying monkey from Oz) assist in running the mayor's office. Bigby Wolf, a.k.a The Big Bad Wolf, has taken on a human disguise to serve as Deputy of Fabletown. Among the town's residents are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and her husband Beast, Pinocchio, and a slew of other familiar and no-so-familiar faces.

While there is an element of the fantastic to this story (how could there not be?) what's happening to the characters is rooted in what's real to you and me. Characters face human struggles from kidnapping to murder to all out war. They've been tossed unwillingly from their homes, given up or lost just about everything and are struggling to make life work in an environment that forces them to keep their true identities a secret from outsiders.

It's the combination of real struggles, familiar characters, and the fantastical that makes this series so compelling. Both the writing and the illustrations walk you through a suspenseful and intricate plot that culminates with the lives of all the characters being changed forever. It's an exciting read that wouldn't be complete in any other form but the graphic genre. It's also accessible to anyone who likes an adventure story - it's not just for typical comic book fans.

Note: The adversary storyline is just the first for the series. With monthly publications, the Fables are already facing new challenges so it's a series with some longevity to it, but not a high cost to you since you're buying brief issues each month rather than an entire novel. Just another appealing aspect :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Spoilers about "Doomsday Book" ahead, read with caution.

A few weeks ago, I was planning a trip to the book store to stock up on some new books. The last time I splurged I only purchased recommendations from friends; which I have discovered is, by far, the best way to purchase books. The last time I went to the store, I branched out and decided I would pick up a few books that I have never heard of, simply because they are award winning books.

Those of you out there that have been reading SciFi books know that there are two major SciFi awards out there, the Hugo awards and the Nebula awards. I figured if I picked a book that had won BOTH awards, I would be in good hands. So I grabbed "Doomsday Book" as well as a few others, simply based on the awards they had won.

Doomsday Book takes place in a future where historians are able to travel back in time as observers and witness history first-hand. A young student at Oxford College named Kivrin is sent to the middle ages to study and observe the people there shortly before the arrival of the black plague. The day that Kivrin is sent back to the middle ages(inadvertently to the exact year and month that the black plague arrived), a corresponding pandemic outbreak happens in the future(present). The book is split between Kirvrin's experience in the middle ages, and the the flu outbreak in the future.

Before I get too into this review, I want to make this point clear: I really enjoy old SciFi, some of my favorite stories were written years before I was born. However, I've found that as time moves on and technology progresses, if a book posits a future in which some of the most basic elements of technology (like cell phones) don't exist, it takes me out of the moment. I know this is a petty complaint, but it's hard for me to really buy into a society that can send people back in time, but still uses land-lines. It removes me from the world and makes me scratch my head. This wouldn't normally bug me, but a major part of the future storyline involves a character constantly asking people to be at his home so they can intercept important calls for him. Maybe I'm spoiled or just being snooty, but this really irked me. This, unfortunately, isn't the only thing that didn't work for me with this book.

I found the medieval storyline to be incredibly fascinating and exciting. A young woman, stuck in a different time, trapped not only by her distance in time, but by the restrictions of being a woman in that time-period. It was the only part of the book that really made me enthusiastic about continuing to read. However, the energy and excitement of the medieval storyline is constantly interrupted by the future storyline, which felt tonally very different. Where the medieval storyline is tense, scary, dirty, anxious, and exciting; the future storyline is slow, plodding and comical at times.

This difference in tone is really what kept me from enjoying the book. It felt less like two different stories in the same book, and more like two different books. There were very basic links between the stories, but not in a way that felt at all satisfying to me. Overall this just kept me from really throwing myself into the book and allowing myself to immerse myself and enjoy it.

The comic tones of the future storyline are quite funny at times, and I can see why so many people have enjoyed Willis' other book "To Say Nothing of the Dog" but when you match a comedic storyline with a serious and bleak storyline (like the black plague) as a reader, I don't know what to think or feel. And while I don't NEED an author to tell me what and how to feel, I definitely need a consistent tone from which to gather my impression of the book and story. For me, this book just didn't work.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

Whoever is editing these books needs to rethink their career choice. First of all there's the numerous omissions of necessary prepositions. I almost didn't make it through the book because of the volume of incomplete sentences. They only needed one extra word to make sense; a "to" or an "of." What do you have against prepositional phrases?

Then, there's the character of Debbie Pelt. Debbie is a shape-shifter and ex-girlfriend to the werewolf who helped Sookie in the last book. She hates Sookie; wants to kill her in fact, but that's not important for this current rant. It's Debbie's job that's the issue. Such a minor detail, but one worth keeping track of for consistency's sake. In Dead to the World, she works in advertising (p. 215,) but in Club Dead she's a legal assistant (p. 123.) Hello, consistency police? Where are you when we need you?!

I've gotten used to the writing style by this point though (one less thing to complain about.) Sookie just over-explains everything and likes to toss in obscure metaphors smack in the middle of the most action-packed sections of the story. Looking past this narrative flaw, the story in Dead to the World is better than Club Dead.

A coven of werewolf witches are attempting a hostile takeover of the Shreveport vampire territory. They've erased Eric's memory and have begun killing vampires and humans working for vampires to establish their dominance. For his safety, Eric is hiding at Sookie's house. So, in a rare occurrence vampires, witches, and werewolves all band together to try and take this evil coven out. All the action relating to this mission takes place at night (of course) so to keep Sookie busy during the day, her brother has gone missing. Sookie is on the trail to track him down, if he's even still alive.

Sookie actually gets time to rest in this book and most of the action builds to a central point rather than bombarding the reader constantly with important action sequences. Sookie doesn't get seriously injured (she really did need a break) and only ends up with one dead body to deal with herself. She's still always in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that's just going to be her luck I figure.

Minus the editing issues, which do weigh heavily on my opinion of the series overall, Dead to the World was a better showing than Harris' prior volume. I've got two more books in the series on the shelf - we'll see how they go when I can bring myself to revisit the hectic world of Sookie Stackhouse.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Book #3 in the Sookie Stackhouse Vampire series has taken things from sort of bad to much worse. With an implausible plot (even for a book about vampires) overly-filled with near-death experiences and romantic entanglements - not to mention all the book's typos and our author's use of "close proximity" (I HATE redundancies like this) - Sookie gets absolutely no time to come up for air in the few days covered in this volume.

I'm hoping this is just a glitch in the series and things will slow down just a bit in the fourth book. Being bombarded with "significant" events in rapid fire is no way for a reader to digest what's really going on which means there's no time to really care about the characters and what's happening to them.

Werewolves and shape-shifters are featured more prominently in Club Dead than we've seen them before. Harris is expanding her supernatural community by way of Sookie's latest mission and a trip to Jackson where the famous members-only Club Dead (aka Josephine's) brings together all kinds of "supes." Bill has been kidnapped and Sookie, along with a werewolf protector, must venture into Jackson's vampiric underbelly to locate (and eventually rescue) Bill.

The werewolf has a crush on Sookie. They make out. Eric, the vampire, pops up multiple times. He and Sookie hook up a bit. She also has a really rough encounter with Bill (whose cheated on her.) She doesn't get much of a break from these enamoured men. It actually gets silly - a lot of admiration isn't always good thing. I don't care how hot she is that all the guys want her. Between the kissing and groping, Sookie gets beat up, manhandled, steaked, and nearly dies twice. She's involved in two bar brawls and a hold-up at a gas station. She gets locked in a trunk and picked on by a jealous ex-girlfriend. Poor girl catches absolutely no breaks - I never once felt sorry for her.

This series borders along the lines of escapist entertainments threatening to insult even the mildly intelligent. I know action scene upon action scene works in the movies, but it's not so successful a tool in books. Spelling out all the action detail-by-detail isn't nearly as exciting as Harris seems to think. Her focus on the excitement of what's going on detracts from the development of her characters and the accuracy of her writing. I can only hope HBO does more for its characters in season three of True Blood than Harris did in Club Dead.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Covenant by Naomi Ragen

So I picked up this book originally because I thought it would be some lovely, touching story about a Holocaust-surviving grandmother passing on her worldly wisdom and strength to her struggling granddaughter. Think Amy Tan for Jews. I was looking for a little mush and it was nice that the context of the story was Jewish - something for me to further identify with. I got way more than I bargained for...

The Covenant is an intricate collection of stories being shared around the horrible incident of a father and daughter's kidnapping by terrorists, in Israel. Elise, the wife and mother, is Jewish, living in Israel, and in the middle of a very difficult pregnancy. Not only is she at risk of losing her unborn child, but now her young daughter and husband could be taken from her too. Julia is a Jewish reporter, working for a television network sympathetic to the Arab side of the conflict. She sees herself as anything but a Jew and stops at nothing to get her story. Ismael is Julia's driver, but he also has deep connections to Hamas. He's a terrorist, but not a killer. Then, there's Leah (Elise's grandmother), Esther, Ariana, and Maria - four women who, together, survived Auschwitz. Not all of them are Jewish, but they're members of a lifelong pact to help and support each other no matter what the cost. These four women come together, using all their resources (which turn out to be surprisingly extensive), risking the lives of their own families, to rescue the kidnapped father and daughter. It's almost as if these women survived the Holocaust just so they could build their lives to help out in this moment, with this situation.

With an intense cast of characters whose stories are portrayed evenly and fairly, The Covenant takes a unique approach to discussing the Middle East, Anti-Semitism, and terrorism. You get opinions about the issues from the characters, each one behaving as you would think based on their own experiences, and that's it. You never feel like the author had positioned a character in the novel just so it could take a certain stance and convey the author's opinions. All the characters felt very organic. Personally, I have very strong feelings on these issues but found it very amiable to read a story that didn't take a particular stance. I was able to feel sympathy where I wanted and get angry at those characters that rubbed me the wrong way on my own, without any nudging from the author.

This is an impassioned story, full of violence, fear, and urgency. You get a clear look into the scars left by surviving horrible pain and suffering. You doubt the good of humanity but eventually breathe a sigh of relief knowing that as bad as the whole may get, you can still find people, individuals, willing to do whatever it takes to save a life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The never ending story

A Small Gripe About Waiting for the Wheel of Time to come to a Conclusion...

I'm a fan of long books. In a more general sense, I'm a fan of long stories with complicated plots and so many characters that it's hard to keep them all straight. I've always liked stories in which you read about the characters for so long that you feel as if they are characters in your own life.

This penchant for reading stories of epic length is what drew me to "The Wheel of Time" in the first place. The books are between 700 and 1,000 pages each and at the time, 1999, there were 8 of them!!! I purchased the first book, and I have since read every book in the series, even purchasing the three most recent releases in hardback.

I have many thoughts and opinions about the story and the characters in it, but what I really want to discuss here is the fact that the last book in the series is now being split into 3 separate books. Effectively moving the release date of the final book to 2011. This particular maneuver irks me immensely, it seems to me that instead of wrapping up the series in one EPIC tome of a book, it is now being split into 3 parts and released a year apart.


The problem I have with this situation is that; I no longer feel nearly as enthusiastic about the series as I once did. When I read the last book that was released, I barely remembered anything about the story, about the characters, the overarching plot, none of it. This is a direct result of how long it's been since I read the previous books. If I had an infinite amount of time, I would happily go back and re-read the previous books. However, when we are talking about 11 books, we're talking about a substantial time commitment just to get 'caught back up.' Friends have sent me website that sum up the books in a very cliff's notes-esqe way, and while these sites are good with the broad strokes, they miss alot of the subtlety and intrigue that you get from actually reading the books.

As I mentioend above, I love long stories, but I want those stories to eventually end, and I want to get the full effect of the ending when it comes, and get the full effect. One day, when I am retired and have may hours a day to fill with reading, I will start the series over again and read it the whole way through without a year-long gap between books, but until that time, I guess I'm stuck reading the books and missing out on most of the subtleties. Well, at least the story actually gets to end.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

How does one sum up a Vonnegut novel? It's nearly impossible to do it justice without spoiling the whole story. Cat's Cradle is either story about humanity's tendency to destroy itself or our compulsion to create things which we can use to destroy ourselves. Simple theme, but how to delve into the plot without giving away all the little quirks in the story that make Vonnegut such an amazing writer?

First, we meet Jonah, or is it John - not entirely sure what his name really is. Anyway, first we meet a reporter who's writing a book about one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb. Gathering research for his book takes Jonah on a fact-finding mission that concludes on an island where a new religion, Bokononism, has formed and where the world ends.

Jonah's journey serves as the impetus for the reader to meet Vonnegut's colorful cast of characters. There's the three children of our atomic scientist: an army general, a clarinet player, and a little person who likes to paint. A doctor, a dictator, a beautiful woman who had a thing for feet, a hotel owner, an ambassador and his wife, a die-hard Hoosier, a bicycle manufacturer, and a think-tank director all play a part in this whirlwind story as well. Oh, and of course there's Bokonon, our religious leader whose philosophies are spread throughout the book as the majority of Vonnegut's characters convert.

A lot of mysteries are solved and lot of people die. In the end, the world is changed forever, but in true Vonnegut style the book is still funny and quirky. Tragedy is no match for Vonnegut who takes sad and series and transforms it into an almost absurd story. You get his point - man constantly works toward destruction - but can't help laughing about it, just a little.
I'm a huge Vonnegut fan and Cat's Cradle is right up there with Sirens of Titan and Galapagos.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

That title is a mouthful huh?

Sam Pulsifer is only good at two things: packaging science and bumbling. His first major bumble comes at the young age of 18 when he burns down Emily Dickinson's historical house and kills two people who were inside (he didn't know they were there.) Ten years later he's out of jail and ready to get on with his life which turns out to be nothing more than bumbled decision after bumbled decision.

It works against Sam that most the people in his life lie to him or attempt to manipulate him. It doesn't help that, years after his initial crime, homes of other famous writers are being burned down throughout New England. And then there's the fact that Sam never felt the need to tell his wife about the arson, murder, and that the orphaned son of the couple who died in the fire is out for revenge. Poor Sam right? Wrong. Sam is not a character you easily feel sorry for, if at all. He's just too much of a mess to garner sympathy. Even when he does "good" you still aren't compelled to like or even appreciate him. He's just not a hero. Sam Pulsifer is nothing more than the main character in a story.

So, how an a book with an unlikeable main character be good? Sam's life is such a mess you can't stop reading about it. The story is also told by Sam as a memoir allowing you to hear Sam admit to and show the reader his own examples of the bumbling choices he makes in life. Personalizing the story in this way makes the action more compelling. I never liked Sam as a person, but his story was great. You don't often get a mess to muddle through like this in a novel and I found it refreshing.

Actually, there are no characters in Arsonist's Guide that are truly likable. Most of them lie and deceive, keep secrets, or tell half-truths that nobody really believes anyway. The only thing to really like is the story itself. Not being distracted by the characters really allows the reader to get into the action. For this reason though, I'd only recommend this book to readers who aren't easily defeated when presented with an unlikeable character. I'd hate to have anyone start this book and give up before getting to the ending - it is a mystery story after all.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope

The Chronicles of Barsetshire are a collection of six books (I've made it through five already) published between 1855-1867. Each book involves different central characters, but all the stories take place in the same fictional county created by Trollope. Rather than review each book I've already read in the series, I want to talk about the series as a whole. Trollope is a great writer and his style, which I find unique to the time period he published in, is what makes this series most attractive.

The series consists of The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. While, it's helpful to read the books in order - since once characters are introduced they're frequently referred to - it's not a must.

While the focus of each book is really on the various relationships between members of the county, Trollope also takes a stance on important issues of the day - particularly political parties, the state of the church, and how the social structure throughout England affects personal relationships. Making it through almost the entire series by now, I've found the stories and character struggles very interesting. The most unique feature of these books is the author's voice itself. Trollope is actually a character, butting into the narrative to support and guide the reader. Trollope does everything from warning his readers that there won't be one central hero to a story to reassuring us that because he hates suspense, he won't leave the reader guessing about the fate of his more beloved characters.

Trollope also uses unconventional methods to conclude his stories. While his characters mostly end up happy, all the stories don't conclude with everyone married to their true love and all the poor characters wealthy. Our Warden (who appears primarily in the first two books) repeatedly refuses positions within the Church that would allow him to live comfortably financially. The women in The Small House at Allington don't all get to marry their true love. Characters die leaving perfectly good wives widowed. These elements of reality make Trollope more like Hardy than Austen (if you were looking for a comparison.)

The pictures Trollope paints throughout this series of a particular county and all its characters is very vivid. He wants you to see this place as he sees it, so he digs deeply into detail when talking about specific places and people. If you're a fan of "classic" literature and enjoy books from this period (like the Bronte sisters and Dickens) Trollope might be worth a try. Give The Warden a shot and see what you think.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I've never read a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like, and Neverwhere is no exception. Neverwhere is based on a TV show that was developed by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry in 1996. It was later adapted to book form by Mr. Gaiman, and it is well worth reading.

The story focuses on a rather average man named Richard Mayhew, who stumbles into a different world one night when he decides to help a young girl he finds bleeding on the streets of London. The girl he meets is a magical being from London Below a world that exists with and below London itself (or London Above). London Below catches people who fall through the cracks of the regular world, in addition, this fantastical world is also inhabited by a number of magical animals, medieval monks, beasts, monsters, and even angels.

Richard's chance encounter with the bleeding young girl from London Below pulls him out of his normal life to such a degree that he can no longer interact with people from London Above. Trying desperately to restore his status as a member of London, Richard heads into London Below and gets embroiled in a conflict that involves two terrifyingly brutal hit-men, magical rats, the fall of Atlantis, and even an attack on heaven.

Gaiman's characters are described in ways that make them laughable and lovable and the world he supplants below (and above, and within) London is amazingly vivid and exciting. I couldn't put this book down, and while I always hate to see a book end, being a fan of long form fiction and fantasy, this ending was wholly satisfying. I would recommend this book to anyone, fan of fantasy or not.

Now, a word on the fact that this book is based on a TV series. Before reading this book I had no idea that it was a series on the BBC in '96. For that fact, I am glad. I checked out some of the series on youtube, and was underwhelmed to say the least. You can see for yourself here. The acting is very good; specifically the Marquis de carabas is not at all what I envisioned, but is perfect none the less. Despite the acting, I can't get past the look of the show. It's just looks rather cheap to me. I feel like Gaiman's writing deserves a better look. Something more polished with a keener eye for production design. I'm not saying it needs the Hollywood treatment, but the book I read was much bigger and more beautiful than the clips of the show I watched. I often like to see screen adaptations of books that I have read, but this is one instance where I'm rather glad to remain ignorant and content to enjoy only what Gaiman describes in his pages, not what aired on the BBC.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Book 2 of the Sookie Stackhouse series contains more exciting, fast-paced bursts of action than Dead Until Dark. While the writing is still the same (Sookie over-explains things a lot) the plot is more dynamic.

Sookie has two mysteries to solve in this volume of the series. The first requires her to travel to Dallas to locate the local vampire sheriff who has gone missing. Her visit to Dallas also includes our first run-in with the Fellowship of the Sun, a "religious" cult bent on eliminating vampires completely. Through two failed attempts to kidnap and kill Sookie, betrayals, a car accident, a trip to the hospital, and the discovery of another mind-reader and shape-shifter, Sookie rescues the sheriff from the church and manages to make it back home.

The second mystery is back in Bon Temps. Lafayette has been murdered and Sookie is determined to find out whodunit and why. The trail of clues leads Sookie to a swingers party with Eric, portraying a gay vampire, attends as her "date." Sookie solves the mystery, but not before facing a tense confrontation with the maenad that has been roaming the woods. For all the action, the mysteries are solved rather quickly (and have pretty obvious resolutions.)

I'm now taking a break from the Sookie Stackhouse series, but have four more books from the series sitting on my shelf so stay tuned. I think two at a time is about all I can handle before I need to read something with a little more intellectual substance to it. We'll continue to meet more supernatural creatures and see what it's like for them, being different in today's society (a storyline I really do like) when I eventually go back into Sookie's world.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

If you've managed to get into True Blood, the HBO series, and want your immersion into the world of Sookie Stackhouse to be complete, this book (the first in a long series) may be for you.

The series follows our heroine, Sookie - a mind-reader from Bon Temps, LA - as she solves mysteries and struggles with the issues involved with dating a vampire. In Sookie's reality, vampires have come "out of the coffin" and exist in the open. Some attempt to "mainstream" and live among humans while others remain in the shadows behaving more like the devilish blood-suckers vampires are typically portrayed as. Dead Until Dark focuses on the mystery surrounding a serial killer going after women who are comfortable interacting with vampires. After multiple women get killed in the small town, the killer turns his attention to Sookie. Her vampire boyfriend, Bill, strives to protect her, but his abilities are limited to the night. During the day, it's up to Sookie to protect her self.

This book (along with the rest of the series, I'm sure) is pure escapist, pretty sexy, somewhat gory reading. Don't go into it expecting much more than to just be entertained, mostly. Some of the story is a little trite (a certain long-dead musician makes a vampire cameo that it totally unnecessary) and our narrator, Sookie, has a tendency to over-explain things at times. The writing does read quickly and creates an alternate and believable reality where vampires, humans, and a few other "special" folk live together.

If about an hour per week is all you need for your vampire fix, skip the books and watch the series on HBO, it's fantastic!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

I'm a huge fan of dense books, and Foucault's Pendulum is definitely a dense book.

There are many parts of this book that I enjoyed; The historical facts are communicated to the reader in a fascinating way, the humor is very high-brow, and getting the jokes made me feel smart. I loved the characters, and enjoyed the way that they interact with each other.

That being said, I really wouldn't recommend this book. There are long sections of book that are ultimately pointless, and quite boring. In the end, the book becomes almost tedious. The middle 300 pages of the book are really nothing more than the three main characters talking to each other in their office. Granted they often have interesting, intelligent, and humorous discussions, but at the core, it's just three acedemic types sitting around goofing off and coming up with crazy theories.

This is the first book I've read by Eco, and I've heard it's not his most accessible. People have told me that The Name of the Rose is a masterwork, and I can see the brilliance in Eco's storytelling, but this book just didn't do it for me, and it's not something I would recommend to anyone who wasn't already fascinated by the templars and all the conspiracy theories that surround them.

Perhaps I would feel different if this book hadn't taken me 4 months to read. I just had trouble picking it up, and in my opinion if I'm not excited pick up a book and read it, it's not worth reading again, or recommending.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Ever wonder what would happen if a Fairy Godmother got power hungry? Who polices someone as powerful as a Fairy Godmother? Apparently witches do; three of them to be exact.

Another volume in Pratchett's Discworld series, Witches Abroad chronicles the journey of three witches out to stop one particular happy ending from occurring (because not all of them are meant to be.) With great humor and wit, Pratchett sits the reader on their own broom alongside the witches as they fly through the air to lands unknown all to prevent Princess Emberella (rhyme with someone else you've already heard of?) from marrying her Prince Charming. Pratchett doesn't stick to just one fairy tale though and the witches' journey is interrupted by encounters with munchkins, a vampire, and a little girl in a red cloak.

Although it took a little while to get the three witches straight - they talk over each other a bunch - Pratchett weaves an exciting and strangely familiar adventure story that addresses the concept of free will and people's propensity to "go with the flow" no matter what the consequences could be. He expertly takes all the components of a fairy tale (witches, good/evil, royalty, magic, and talking animals) and uses them to teach his reader that the best ending doesn't always have to be a "happy" one. This was my first trip to Discworld and I'll most likely be returning repeatedly.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Actual Book vs Movie Version

I like lists. What overly organized person doesn't like lists? When I don't have a list of chores to do or a shopping list to make, I like to think up informative lists to share. Here's probably one of many that will sit on this site.
Book vs Movie - which is better?
(in no particular order)
  1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (J. R. R. Tolkien) - BOOKS
  2. The Shipping News (Annie Proulx) - BOOK
  3. Catch - 22 (Joseph Heller) - MOVIE
  4. The Lost World (Michael Crichton) - BOOK
  5. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving,) movie title: Simon Birch - BOOK
  6. In Her Shoes (Jennifer Weiner) - MOVIE
  7. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Tom Robbins) - BOOK
  8. Practical Magic (Alice Hoffman) - MOVIE
  9. Vanity Fair (William Thackery,) 2004 movie version - BOOK
  10. Dracula (Bram Stoker,) 1992 movie version - BOOK
  11. Running with Scissors (Augusten Burroughs) - MOVIE

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The First Assistant by Clare Naylor & Mimi Hare

This book is actually a sequel to The Second Assistant. One's rise in Hollywood, of course starts at the bottom, and everyone has more than one assistant, so in the first book, our main character, Elizabeth Miller, is hired as the second assistant in a Hollywood agency. Now, Lizzie, who has grand hopes of becoming a Hollywood producer, is a first assistant. That's really all you need to know.

Both books are pure escapist reading and pretty disappointing if you're looking for a heroine with a backbone. Lizzie's neurosis, while entertaining, are so highly magnified that it seems all she has going for her is dumb luck as she climbs the Hollywood ladder. Her character has this competing duality that is quite frustrating. She was smart enough to go to a good college and initially begin a career in politics in DC. Then, she moves to LA and becomes this insecure mess, making silly mistakes reminiscent of a person without common sense. Argh.

In The First Assistant, Lizzie is "rented" out to an up-and-coming actress to serve as an on-location assistant. While on location, the conniving second assistant back in the office attempts to get Lizzie fired and Lizzie's famous boyfriend gets photographed kissing an ex-girlfriend. This is actually enough to make her life fall apart (for a short time.) In the end, it all works out (a Hollywood ending?), but the authors rush to get her though to that happy ending. The writers cram so much in so quickly, you finish chapters craving more detail while not really believing that any of the events in the book could actually happen. The rush of the writing and the lack of depth int he story made this anything but a calming, escapist book to read (and I found serious typos too.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Science Fiction / Fantasy Series worth reading

These are just a few fantastic series I feel are worth reading

1. The Baroque Cycle - Neal Stephenson
This is a trilogy: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World
Stephenson has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Crash many years ago. The Baroque Cycle is closer in style to Cryptinomicon than Snow Crash, but even that comparison doesn't begin to describe the series. The first book, Quicksilver is slow to get started, but the payoff when you reach the end of the 3rd book in the series is nothing short of amazing. You'll meet famous people in history throughout the book; Isaac Newton, King Louis the 14th, several members of the English Royalty, and almost every great mind of the Enlightenment. And for those of you who appreciate a beautifully-bound hard cover, this series is available in a special edition that looks amazing.

2. The Bas-Lag Books - China Mieville
Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council
Another trilogy of books, but the stories are not connected. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they all take place in Mieville's vivid and fantastical world, Bas-Lag. The world has everything a monster fan could ask for; giant consciousness-eating moths, deadly trans-dimensional spiders, killer disembodied left-hands, and all the political strife you can handle. His books are a trip to another world. Start with Perdido Street Station, move on to The Scar, and wrap it up with The Iron Council. And if you want even more, you can get one more little taste of Bas-Lag in the short story Jack.

3. The Song of Ice and Fire - George R.R. Martin
A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons
This series is the Tolkien killer. The characters are packed with good and bad aspects. None of them are perfect, and most of them make you want to tear your hair out. Martin isn't afraid to treat his characters with a ruthlesness that can only be found in real life. He kills them off in fantastic ways that you REALLY don't see coming. The only bad part of this whole series is...it's not done yet.

Here is a series that MAY be worth checking out, if the follow up books tie up some loose ends.

4. The Prince of Nothing - R. Scott Baaker
The Darkness that Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, The Thousandfold Thought
This series starts out incredibly strong. Baaker's world building is on-par with China Mieville; the world is fully realized with a history that is as mysterious as it is vibrant. The title character, The Prince of Nothing, is absolutely fascinating. He is part of a monastic group of people who have lived in isolation for centuries using breeding practices to create an individual with inhuman speed and perception. My only complaint about this trilogy is the ending. The Author left FAR too many loose ends dangling. The next book, which is not part of the original trilogy, has just been released and while I haven't read it yet, it seems to wrap up many of the plot strands that I felt were left dangling. This series is unique in tone and style and worth checking out, I am looking forward to reading the follow-up books to see the conclusion of the story.

That's all I have for now, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Top 5 Books of All Time

To get a little conversation going and to trade lists of Must-Read Books, I'm putting my Top 5 Books of All Time out into the void.
  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  2. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
  3. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  4. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  5. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

These are in no particular order. What are your Top 5?


Monday, June 29, 2009

Moonheart by Charles De Lint

While I'm not a huge reader in the fantasy genre, I dabble. Moonheart introduced a fantastical world of druids, chieftains, and spirit animals while staying relatively grounded in the real world, so it wasn't complete immersion into a world without any familiarities. The story begins in Canada and moves back and forth in time and place across a few plains of existence. There are people with magic in them and people with that extra sense of awareness and ability that live out in the world today. And, while the main antagonist is this ominous blackness creeping into our world, our heroes are human full of all the emotions and doubts any reader can relate to.

The story is very vivid and tangible (even with the magic,) but there were a lot of characters to keep tabs on and the narrative got a little jumpy at times between two key locations where most of the book's action was taking place. However, this is a great novel to escape to for some excitement and some magic.

Friday, June 26, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

It's the story itself that captivates in People of the Book. The novel could be horribly written, and the story would still make this a must-read. However, Brooks weaves an intelligent and articulate saga, chronicling the journey of a Passover prayerbook through history. You, the reader, learn of this prayerbook's incredible journey through history in flashbacks instigated by the prayerbook's restoration. Each flashback begins with a discovery made by the book's restorer. While we learn the history of the prayerbook, most of the amazing stories of heroism and preservation elude the characters in the novel.

What moved me the most throughout People of the Book was the heroism of people protecting a piece of history that wasn't even their own. Very few Jews are responsible for saving this treasured Passover prayerbook. It's impressive to think that, throughout history, there were always people willing to preserve and protect items outside their own culture no matter the personal danger it might put them in. This is an exciting story that will appeal to anyone and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund

Another fictionalized biography, Abundance tells the story of Marie Antoinette from Marie's perspective. Naslund makes the life of this Queen accessible and contemporary by focusing solely on the life of one girl growing up far from home and struggling to fulfill the whishes of those around her. Missing from the story line are the politics of France during the revolution. Instead, you're given minute detail into the part Marie Antoinette played in history. This book was hard to put down once picked up.

The Master by Colm Toibin

Toibin takes a haughty writer of old and tells a simple story - allowing the reader to get to know Henry James to the point of forgetting you're reading about a famous author until another character refers to him by name. This fictionalized account of Henry James' life focuses on James' personality. James is just as confused as the rest of us. Throughout the novel he questions his sexuality, battles the guilt he feels over a friend's suicide, serves as caretaker to his dying sister, and struggles to find his place in the world. His biggest emotional battle in the book is his fear of literary failure. Toibin skillfully humanizes James by speculating that he wasn't as confident a person as his prose suggests, making this pseudo-biography quite an interesting and entertaining read.

You don't have to be familiar with James' body of work to read The Master, but it might make you want to check him out afterward. I suggest you start with The Bostonians.