Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sir Thursday by Garth Nix

Sir Thursday (The Keys to the Kingdom, #4)Sir Thursday by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Link to my 2010 notes.

Update from my 2019 read:

Once again, I'm giving this 5 stars, more for the whole series rather than this one book. I like the depth in the setting and plot we get in this juvenile fiction, even though it stays true to the level of the audience it was written for. Also, this being my second time through the series, I'm still finding fantastic foreshadowing I missed the first time through.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather ThiefThe Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My wife read this book, and loved it, and persistently recommended it to me (I didn't use the word "nag"). Then she organized a book club at MY family reunion, and assigned this book as the subject and it was over. I had to read it.

It was a fascinating read, and in the end, I'm glad I read it. It left me with a bunch of questions however, which I will list here as both my response to the book, and my teaser for anyone who hasn't read it yet.

1. How was the theft really committed?
2. How did an ex-military guy ever get paid to write this book?
3. Is there another side to this story that isn't being told? Every attempt I've heard so far to justify, even in part, the events in this book has fallen very flat.
4. While I'm not a fan of the over-used term "sustainable", the fly tying community is so obviously not sustainable that there isn't another term to use. How do they justify that?
5. While I found the blatant nature of the crime disturbing, and the attitude of the perpetrator annoying, and the failure of law enforcement and modern society to address his wrong-doing astounding, I am left with the unanswered question of what am I supposed to do with this information? I am a doer by nature, but can't join some save-the-animals type group, since I generally don't align with their assertions. Yet, this is a specific infraction being committed for an unjustifiable reason. Shouldn't we DO something about it?

So go pick this up and give it a go. It is a worthwhile read, and then there will be one more person in the world who can help me decide what to do with it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix

Drowned Wednesday (The Keys to the Kingdom, #3)Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Link to my brief comments from my 2010 reading.

From my 2019 read:
So I'm doing it. I'm giving this 5 stars (was 3 stars). Is this better than the previous books? Not really. But I'm ready to give up any hangups I had about this series. It isn't perfect, but it is everything I look for in a book. There is always movement or progression of plot and characters. I always want to know what's going to happen next. I don't want to put it down. I have 3 other books I need to read in the next 2 weeks for various reasons, yet as I finish each book of this series I find myself moving straight to the next book and procrastinating my other responsibilities. Obviously that is a win.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Grim Tuesday by Garth Nix

Grim Tuesday (The Keys to the Kingdom, #2)Grim Tuesday by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this in 2010, but my comments were... lacking.  See my entry here.

This is a great page-turner for young readers. Its originality and great characters pair well with the expanding conflict that Arthur, the young protagonist, faces. As with most good fantasy books, the fate of the entire universe is at stake, but Nix has cleverly reframed the universe into a conceptual house, and introduced politics at an age appropriate level into the house. It is very well done.

Strangely, I can't quite put my finger on why I'm not giving this 5 stars. I can't think of any criticisms I have for this book, which is unusual. It is strange that the house that controls the universe has a Victorian industrial age steam punk feel to it. But it feels like it fits with the story, and so is hard to complain about. After thinking it over, I think that I'm just anticipating more story, so having just this one piece of the story isn't as satisfying. Not fair you say? Well, I've heard that life isn't fair:)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

Mister Monday (The Keys to the Kingdom, #1)Mister Monday by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My 2010 Review

Comments from my 2019 reading:
I decided it was time to revisit a series I already knew and loved. This young adult book has the originality that I have come to expect from Garth Nix, and this reading did not disappoint. This second time through I caught more of the details and foreshadowing of the final ending than I did the first time, and it adds some depth that I appreciated. All in all, I'm excited to plow through this series again.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Have Sword, Will Travel by Garth Nix

Have Sword, Will TravelHave Sword, Will Travel by Garth Nix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a decent book for young readers. I'm not actually sure what age group it was aimed at, but I'm guessing it is a pretty young demographic. It moved along quickly, and had a good story.

So why was I disappointed? I picked up this book because it had Garth Nix's name printed on the cover. After my last few random selections at the library I wanted to turn to an author I trusted for a great book. Nix always has some original concept that makes his books exceptional. This book lacked that originality. I guess I was supposed to be more intrigued by the sword-as-a-character, but that didn't do it. There were too many cliches, from magic swords to dragons that talked, for this book to meet my expectation as a Nix work.

Was it a bad book? Not at all. Was it a fantastic book written for kids, but that would appeal to all ages? Not at all. It is just a plain old fashioned good book for kids.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Whose Body?  (Lord Peter Wimsey, #1)Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After my disappointing results of random selection in the fantasy category, I decided to turn back to mystery. I searched the library for a classic whodunit and found this one in my usual audio book format.

I was almost immediately disappointed by several things. First of all there was the reader. His attempt to be theatrical took some getting used to, and while he was ok, this was not my favorite performance.

Second, the author has this odd style of dropping half of the dialogue in a conversation. A character goes off on a monologue, and then starts responding to unheard comments i.e. reactions of others. It's like listening someone talk animatedly on a phone call, where you only hear their side of the conversation. Can you follow along? Yes, with effort. But why do that to your reader?

Yet all of that was justified by one much appreciated feature at the end of the book. This author understands how to wrap up a mystery. In a mystery you drop clues and add twists and turns to keep your reader guessing. At the end of all that you owe it to your reader to explain everything. I mean everything. Every clue, every false trail. This is what bothered me about the last Flavia de Luce book I read--no exhaustive explanation. Well, this book did it right. Was the setup a little cheesy? Yes. There was the stereotypical suicide note that explained everything. But as a reader this is what I want, so this book redeemed itself in the end, and I've already recommended it to others. You will have to get over some odd stylistic habits, but it's worth it in the end.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Cold Iron (Masters & Mages, #1)Cold Iron by Miles Cameron
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was another random selection from our local library's audio book section. Again, I was disappointed. The overall concept wasn't bad, but the execution of the idea was... awful. I'm sorry. If I ever get around to writing my own fantasy story, I will admit right here and now that I probably won't even produce something half this good, but as a reader, I expect more. One of the challenges is that as readers we consistently have greatness at our fingertips. How can the new writers in the market hope to compete?

As usual, I just paused to look up this author on Wikipedia. Of course, he isn't new. He has a decent bibliography, which leaves me more confused than ever.

Let me add some specifics:
The characters were flat. Aranthur gets a job offer from everyone he meets. He is big, strong, talented, powerful magically, yet humble as a farm boy. Oh, right, he is a farm boy. And of course, the ladies love him. What is interesting about Aranthur as a character? Nothing. He is all plot driven.

Everyone is young, fit, and promiscuous. From the General, to the innkeeper's son. Where are the old, overweight, and chaste? I thought Sassan to be an old drug addict, with a long past as a nobleman in a different culture, but then he sobers up in a few chapters, and before you know it he is another young, fit person who is sleeping around.

Why are all of these people in a fantasy medieval setting using our curse words? Why do we have to call a gun a "puffer", but then hear/read the F-word every other sentence? I read a review that said this book was a great example of world-building, but I don't see it.

The magic system is fairly complicated, which is fine if you get the same level of explanation as you go. I felt that while the magic was compelling, it was too complicated to leave it to a Night-Circus-style "and then there was magic" type of explanation. It didn't have the explanation of Sanderson's Mistborn Allomancy so you couldn't anticipate magical responses and let that be a part of the story.

Finally, to top it all off, a talking dragon and a unicorn show up in this book. A unicorn. That doesn't do anything. And a talking dragon that is treated like an animal in one scene, and then is called on for help in the next scene as if it were a regular ally. And it shows up. And helps. Why? Because all fantasy books require dragons and elves?

So while I did like the potential of this book, nearly 100% of that potential was unrealized. I have never read another book by this author, and in the last 20 minutes I've learned that he has written a lot of books, so I'm not judging his collected works here, but I generally finish every series I start. Its a curse I have. But I won't be finishing this one.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (The Tattooist of Auschwitz #1)The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't watch dramas. I just don't enjoy the extreme tugging of emotions back and forth. I prefer emotions in the background, subtle and meaningful. Given this opinion, you can guess that I don't enjoy World War II stories. Whether tragic, heroic, or despicable, the stories produced from those sad days and years were not subtle. Violent external conflict on the national, local, and personal levels does not equal enjoyment for me. Yet, here I am having read the story of an Auschwitz survivor. It was an interesting story. It was well written. For the most part it was tastefully done, given the circumstances, but not my cup of tea.

Having said all that, I am firmly in the "never forget" camp. I've been to several concentration camps, and spent hours in the Holocaust museum in DC on multiple occasions. The Holocaust was a horrific event in the history of the world, and unfortunately does not stand alone as the only event of despotism in history. I have strong feelings about it, but that does mean that I want to read book after book about it. That feels like wallowing in misery to me. I prefer to move on to other uplifting or educational topics and overcome darkness with light.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

The Golden Tresses of the Dead (Flavia de Luce #10)The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really want to like this series more than I do. I like mysteries, I like period British stories, I like Flavia's character. Yet these stories just haven't ended satisfactorily to me. And this doesn't end the series well at all. Where is Flavia headed, as she rides off into the sunset? Is Collin a future love interest? Is her future really based on a partnership with Dogger, a man old enough to be her father, if not grandfather? If nothing else, Undine is a loose end. Are they really going to coexist? I thought for a while that maybe Flavia would accept her as some sort of partner, yet in the end she obviously still thinks of her as a child. If this is really it for the series, I want all of these questions answered. Instead we embarked on another stand alone mystery, which was ok for what it was, but lackluster given the expectation to wrap up the series as a whole. Disappointing.

Of course, if he continues to write these, maybe there is a chance of a better wrap up in the future, but even in that case, this book didn't move her character forward at all. Waste of space.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (Flavia de Luce, #9)The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm returning to the Flavia series to finish it up now that the final books are out. Flavia is a great character because she is incorrigible, but the start of this book was a little heavy handed with her precociousness, even for her. This story introduced another new, albeit temporary, setting, but the downside is that there were none of her hallmark chemistry experiments, since she didn't have her lab at her disposal. I did like the increased part played by Dogger, and look forward to his further character development, even though the series is wrapping up.

Finally, if there was anything that made this book ho-hum for me, it was the ending. I felt like it was missing the complete wrap up scene, where all of the evidence was explained and dots connected. Yes, there was an effort, but it didn't feel complete. Also, the plot didn't contribute to a bigger picture such as her mother's disappearance, or her father's death, or the fate of her home, so this also falls flat because it doesn't move the greater "Flavia" story arc forward. I'm looking forward to the wrap up, and better execution of a classic mystery, and hopefully a good wrap on Flavia's story arc.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson

Ms. Bixby's Last DayMs. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

3 star.

My wife recommended this one, comparing it to Wednesday Wars, a book we both read in the past. It is definitely compelling as a story, and has deep conversation points about life, growing up, and dealing with death. The serious topic is paired nicely with the comedic viewpoints of three boys, making it enjoyable as well as thought provoking, keeping the reader from wallowing in the sad plot line throughout the book. I don't remember Wednesday Wars all that well, but to me this book is better compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. The whimsical viewpoint of Scout describing serious events matches the approach of Topher and his friends dictating their viewpoints as narrators.

So why not give it more stars? I don't recommend you read this book. I don't wish to get into the reasons why, so the best thing to do is hope this book gets lost in the sea of thousands of equally well written books. I recommend you read To Kill A Mockingbird and Wednesday Wars and call it good.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Clariel by Garth Nix

Clariel (Abhorsen, #4)Clariel by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I made a mistake I rarely make with this book. I read a few comments about the plot on Goodreads, and had the ending of the book spoiled. It was an innocent mistake, as I was just trying to figure out when in the Abhorsen series I should read it, but there it was. A sentence or two spoiled it for me, and once read, they couldn't be unread. With that background I finally got around to reading it, and I spent most of the book dreading the ending that was coming. You see, this was supposed to be a dark tragedy of sorts, and even worse, it was set in a world I already knew and loved. So I wasn't looking forward to the ending.

I don't want to spoil it for you, so I won't go into much more detail, but I will say that I appreciated this book in the end. First, the ending was not as awful and soul-crushing as it could have been. Second, the background and explanation this book gives about free magic and free magic sorcerers was very enlightening to the rest of the series, and answered questions I had always had. I also chose to read Goldenhand and then go back and read this prequel, but I think that reading the prequel first would have worked as well. As with many other prequels, I don't think this is the same quality of story that you get in the original introduction to the world, so if you aren't committing to the whole series, maybe you better start with Sabriel. All in all, a good story.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else by Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything ElseThe Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else by Daniel Coyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was an interesting study of the source of human talent. I happen to be reading another book I received from a friend on creativity which I will hopefully write about here when I finish it. It was interesting that both books shared some of same examples.

The Talent Code focuses on neurosciences and discoveries related to myelin. Myelin does seem to be very important, but I can't help but think they gave too much credit to that biological factor in an attempt to prove that there is no such thing as natural talent. And yet, with as much proof as they offered don't we all know somebody who is naturally talented at something? That is hard to reconcile. One last criticism is that several of their data points seem to exhibit confirmation bias. For example, they point out how many great contributors to society lost at least one parent in their youth and say that is a motivator to their success. Yet, they don't talk about the millions that lose parents and struggle to achieve even mediocre success in life.

With all of that said, I liked this book. I do have the feeling that when I finish the book on creativity I would probably recommend reading one or the other but not both.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride by William Goldman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book. I guess that I expected to experience a bigger and better version of the movie that we all know and love. It is one of my favorite movies of all time, and last year I read Cary Elwes book, As You Wish, about the making of the movie, and I loved it. Since most books are better than the movie, I expected an engaging, deeper plot that I would really love.

I didn't get what I expected. What I got was a near word-for-word retelling of the movie. The only material difference was the Pit of Despair, which was replaced by the Zoo of Death in the book. In some ways, this is what I always want from a movie based on a book. I want to hear and see the book I envision in my head on the screen. That is exactly what this was, so in that regard it was perfect. The downside is that it was in reverse, with the movie coming first, so when I opened the book I expected more, and it wasn't there.

If you love the movie like I do, this is a must-read. But don't expect something new. Expect the same dialogue, often word-for-word.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest & Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest & Surest Way to Understand Basic EconomicsEconomics in One Lesson: The Shortest & Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before I say anything else, let me just state that I agree with just about all of the principles in this book. No arguments here.

Having said that, this book was boring. Like claw my eyes out boring. But I'm the one who picked up the book on economics, so that's on me. As for the book itself, it does give a brief treatise on the basics of economics, embracing classic conservative philosophies. What it didn't do was convince the reader of the correctness of this view point. It spoke down to dissenting opinions, and didn't step to the opponents side at all to address rebuttals. It wasn't great, although it was a fair refresher on economic principles that I slept through during my undergrad degree.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Quest (Farseer Trilogy, #3)Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a journey that, while glad I undertook, I was not prepared for. This final volume of the trilogy was massive, and plodded along for most of it. In the end, you invest so much time in the characters, especially the main character, that you care about them, and their heartaches are your heartaches. And that is how this story ended for me. In heartache.

I can't say I liked the ending, even though I can say I "liked" the book. I just expected... more. More happiness. More resolution. More winning. Less compromise. Less sorrow. Less awkwardness.

I often like to include specific examples of things I did or didn't like in a book, but the scope of this one is just too big, so I'm not even going to try. I will comment on one positive thing I have gained from this book. This is a true fantasy, and is a great example of fantasy that is not just about elves or dwarves, or about a certain setting. It is about distinct people, battling the challenges in their lives. The time spent on the details of the main character's life is the main point of this narrative, not what we would call the plot. It is walking with Fitz through life that gives the reader a strong emotional connection to him when the plot kicks him around and abuses him. Without that, the whole thing would fall flat.

So that's all I have to say about that. Would I recommend this book? Maybe. If you have a lot of time, and are ready to immerse yourself in the mind and experiences of a character that does not get everything he wants in the end, then go for it. This book is for you. For anyone else I would suggest putting this on hold until the above qualifiers are true. If that never happens, then there are better books for you out there.

The more I have thought about it, the more I have disliked this book.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Royal Assassin (Farseer Trilogy, #2)Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was more of the same from Assassin's Apprentice, the first book in this series. Fairly slow going and detailed, it is hard to see how this book became so popular. Then as you near the end, the action begins to happen, and you find that you are very involved. You care about the characters, and you can picture the society you invested so much time to get to know. It is hard to see where that switch flips, but it does, and then this tired, slow story becomes a page turner.

A small criticism: Fitz has this power to repel people, yet he is in many situations where he is threatened but doesn't use it. I don't understand that. Near the end of the book you see him try to use that power, and then learn about the strength it takes, etc., probably because the author realized that the readers would ask that same question. But earlier, it just isn't a part of his repertoire. That seems like an oversight.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, #1)Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a classic fantasy. Slow, plodding, with just enough action to keep you reading, with most of the plot progression around politics and characters rather than action scenes. I'll be honest, it was a little hard to get into, but once I was involved it was enjoyable. For me it was analogous to a classical piano concert. Deep, slow, meaningful.  I enjoy those, but that wouldn't be my first choice for entertainment. I'm interested to see how the next books go, and if Hobb picks up the pace at all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix

To Hold the BridgeTo Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In revisiting the works of Garth Nix, my appreciation for his talent has grown. This collection of short stories was surprising, impressive, and an overall great experience. Very few of these stories left me without a desire to hear more. The few that built on worlds he created in other books (that I have read) did not disappoint on the expectations built in the original work. The stories built on worlds from books I haven't read yet were the best advertising possible, and the stand alone ideas were largely intriguing. I recommend this to anyone who has enjoyed any of Nix's other works, although I do recommend getting to know a few of his completed books before taking this on, just so you are ready for his style, but either way, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a StoreThe Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There were a lot of things that I didn't like about this book, and somehow that gives me more to say about it. I wrote a long review, and then decided to re-write it. Why? Because it sounded trollish because I made a lot of comments about Flander's personal story she lays out in this book. While I am opinionated, and I like to share my opinions in appropriate venues, I am not, and have never been, and Internet troll.

So why did I write the first version? As a blogger, and following her own style, Flanders wrote a book about her personal life, making it fair game for comment. Instead of responding at that level, I'll just share what I learned from this book. You can read what you want between the lines.

What I Learned:

Don't write a book about your mistakes in life unless you can handle uncensored comments/reactions to it on the Internet.

Good parenting is very important to having successful, well adjusted adult children. This includes conservative values, close family relationships, work ethic, self sufficiency, open communication, and regular religious observance. Yes, parenting is hard.

Self improvement is more than short term personal projects, but those projects can insight real change.

Personal objectivity is hard. You can claim to learn something, say to not buy stuff just to soothe emotional pain. But when you encounter another painful situation you may go on a shopping binge anyway, and buy stuff you'll never use, such as gardening or canning paraphernalia. You may never even admit that you did the thing you said not to do.

Emotional stability is hard, but without it, there are things you are unlikely to have. Emotional self sufficiency. A committed, loving marriage. Signs you have achieved that stability may include the ability to weather a joke about your wardrobe without it becoming a life event.

The millennial generation is learning that there is a benefit to unplugging and living in the real world. I think their children will learn the value of privacy and minding their own business. I hope that the economy of earning a living by selling your dirty laundry comes to an end. Interesting and useful content is fine, but I hope that our children stop the useless consumption of other people's personal drama that started with Jerry Springer and reality TV, and perpetuated with personal bloggers and YouTubers.

There was some value and good tips in this book here and there, but most of it fell in the category just mentioned, and did not spark joy in me:) So I can't keep it.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Goldenhand (Abhorsen, #5)Goldenhand by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So when I restarted the Abhorsen series I wasn't even aware of this book. When I learned about it, I was concerned that it would mess with the mostly clean wrap up in the previous book. Thankfully, this continuation worked well. The carryover of a known antagonist helped the story work as well.

I have two [minor] complaints. One, Sabriel and Touchstone have gone flat. They are too perfect. What are their weaknesses? How are they going to grow now? I'm not saying that they have to fall, or that their relationship should deteriorate, but they need some oppression or room to grow of their own.

My second beef is with Sabriel as well. When a nearly insurmountable foe shows up, her resistance to sending her inexperienced apprentice out to deal with the danger is cursory at best. Sabriel had faced Chlorr and knew the danger. I just don't see her backing down so easily, Clayr or no Clayr. Did the plot need her to back down? Yes. But that makes it feel gimmicky, and when Nix addresses the issue directly in dialogue, it actually gets worse. Do I have an alternate solution to suggest? No.

Criticisms aside, this was a good continuation to the series.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Abhorsen (Abhorsen, #3)Abhorsen by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Second reading, but first review.

This was a great wrap up to the story arc started in Lirael, although Lirael and Abhorsen should have just been released as one book. You could argue that is started with Sabriel, but I disagree. Yet, if you want to meet and try to convince me, I accept. Back to Abhorsen: I feel that the antagonist was better described early in this book, which made the danger more threatening, and fixed one of my criticisms of Lirael. That description also included an explanation of how Kerrigor, was related, or should we say not related. Just like I wanted. As far as criticism, I don't have much to say. Enjoyable story, and if anything I'm scared that the next book, Goldenhand, might ruin a perfectly good ending, although Nick's quick exit at the end of Abhorsen left something to be desired. But I assume that is another book for another day.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Lirael by Garth Nix

Lirael (Abhorsen, #2)Lirael by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a re-read from 2009, but sadly, I didn't say anything about it at the time.

Why do I like the work of the Garth Nixes and Brandon Sandersons of the world? It is how they are able to spin a tale--plot, characters, setting, all of it-- in a way that keeps you guessing and still comes together as one story in the end. The few Agatha Christie books I'm aware of display this as well. Perhaps it is fair to say that all books are mysteries at some level.

Lirael fits that description. As I read and tried to see what was coming, I would finally figure it out and feel smart only to have the whole thing unfolded for me anyway in the next instant. To me that is maximum engagement for a reader. To drop clues until they figure it out on their own... just as you tell them anyway.

The one small weakness I noticed was that the nature of the enemy isn't really revealed or a part of the story until the epilogue. We do get an idea with the backstory about the Charter from Mogget and the Dog, but it kind of feels like it's thrown in. "And now that everyone knows who they are in this story, here is some unspeakable evil to fight. Let us sally forth in the next book!" One small thing that would have helped for me is to link Kerrigor to this new guy (forgot his name). That would have made a nice consistent good vs. evil struggle in my mind, but that may have presented another problem. Things that wrap up or connect too nicely feel contrived. Overall this is a small issue.

Why only 4 stars? Lack of satisfactory resolution. Even if the conflict had to continue to the next book, I don't feel like our protagonists accomplished enough to call this an ending. Easily fixed in the next book, but still, I'm holding a star hostage.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind (Unwind, #1)Unwind by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Several people on goodreads suggested that this book is a horror. I don't know what makes something a horror, but I don't think this is it. There are some disturbing parts, and it is kind of dark overall, but I don't know that I was constantly in fear, which is how I would expect a horror to be.

Did I like this book? Hard to say. It was both really good and really bad.

The Really Bad:
Setting. The setting is underdeveloped. The future seems a lot like today. Sure, iPods are antiques, but he still gets tracked by his cell phone? Other than morbid surgery techniques, there is no new technology. Also, American culture seems to be about the same despite the passage of time, except the teenage pregnancy problem and the legality of storking. The constant reference to solid family structures already feels outdated, which is sad. Most homes they encounter in the story have two parents.

Plot. This is my biggest issue, and the reason I can't call this a good book. Why would parents ever sign an unwind order? The way this is structured, parents are forced to keep the child through the most taxing, most expensive years, which happen to be the years that true emotional attachment is formed. Once you're past that, I don't see the motivation for anyone to unwind their kids. Shusterman tries to make it sound logical, but he fails. No divorce agreement would unwind a kid. A kids misbehavior wouldn't do it either. Think of all of the criminals in jail that still have mothers that love them. In the occasional cases where someone would sign an unwind order they usually would have to have a pretty unstable past themselves, and if that is as prevalent as it is made out to be, their society would be showing all kinds of other negative affects, which it wasn't. Everyone seemed to be functioning "normally". It has the potential to be an interesting book, but with such a shaky foundation as the basis for the concept of unwinding it is a non starter. All I can think of is that Shusterman doesn't have kids of his own, so doesn't understand how it feels to be a parent. That or the world is full of really crappy parents and I'm just out of touch (I don't think so.) (EDIT: Wikipedia says he lives with his four kids. I don't understand how he thinks this is a plausible plot.)

Pros
The characters were the one thing that was done well in this book. The author shows you the good and bad in everybody. By the end you care about Roland. You question the Admiral. Connor is starting to get over some of his weaknesses, but now has transplants himself. Risa has strong principles, but is now partly paralyzed. You get involved in all the characters. He walked the line, and successfully managed to save all of the main protagonists, yet none of them made it through unscathed, and none of them have an easy path in front of them. That was a job well done, and might alone be enough to get me reading the next book. Let this be a lesson to young authors ( and me.) Great characters can overcome just about every other sin a writer may commit.

A final thought. Yes, this book is tackling a social issue that has been politicized and is a core debate about our values as a country and society. A few times that discussion is addressed so directly that it distracts from the story, in my opinion. In the end though, it is not an effective platform for the discussion for two reasons. First, the plot weaknesses already mentioned don't give readers a good basis for debate. It is difficult to extend a fictional setting and use it to think about real life when it has deep flaws-- not perceived flaws in its morality, but logical flaws in its structure. No one is going to sign an unwind order.

Second, the abortion issue has become what is called a Sucker's Choice. It has been polarized into two opposing camps that have become so far apart that they resort to violence rather than dialogue. (I'm borrowing this from Crucial Conversations and Leadership and Self Deception. ) Until there are more than two options on the table, no discussion is likely to see progress towards a solution. To me an obvious option to the discussion that no one talks about (and there is more than one) is to focus on stopping the conception of unwanted babies. Contemporary combatants in this discussion don't give that concept real attention, and this book doesn't either. So is this a great read for high school English classes to sharpen their critical thinking skills on? Probably not. You'd be presenting them with a dilemma that has already been backed into the Sucker's Choice corner of useless political debate. And that teaches them nothing but how to be divisive, not how to find solutions to tough problems.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hadn't read this since my elementary or middle school days, and something made me put it on my list. This book is wasted on school children.

It is a masterpiece of creating a setting and a culture through the observations of an inexperienced character. I was explaining this to my 15 year old son, and he demanded an example. For instance, when Scout is listening to the ladies at the missionary society meeting, she isn't catching the nuances of the conversation, but as the reader you see what is happening: the prejudices, the insults, and the emotional under currents. In several scenes, with very benign prose, I felt emotional about what was happening. That might sound run of the mill, but I'm generally known as a non-emotional person. My wife likes to make the point by reenacting Hermione Granger's accusation "you have the emotional range of a teaspoon." So when this book, without any sappy dialogue, started to tug at my heart strings I was shocked. How!?! It was all in the quality of writing. Presenting real life drama without, well, fake drama. All presented through the eyes of a likable, unassuming character.

So I haven't said anything about racism or politics or history. Yeah, that stuff is there too, and don't get me wrong, it's also well done. That is what gives this book timeless attention, but frankly, there are many other books with those features, they just aren't as well written, or as accessible. You shouldn't read this book because it is useful way to start discussions and prompt essays in English class. You should read it because it is a masterpiece of writing.

I feel like I've wandered in my comments, but I think you get the idea. I appreciated this book, and recommend it to every reader.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix

Newt's EmeraldNewt's Emerald by Garth Nix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this young adult fantasy Regency romance for one reason: it was written by Garth Nix. I've decided that--prepare yourself for a shocking revelation--good writers write good books. It doesn't matter what kind of book, really. The ability to tell a story, develop characters, and paint a picture in your mind transfer to pretty much any genre. Does that mean every book by a good author is a home run? Of course not. But it does seem to be that the worst you will get from a tried-and-true author is mediocrity, and that is a good bit better than random selection.

I honestly didn't even know what the term Regency romance meant. About a third of the way into Newt's Emerald I bothered to ask my wife, and her explanation was depressing. She described the lace and fainting books I actively avoid. Yet, I had started it, and I was interested. Did it help that it had a fantasy tie-in? Sure. Did I find some of the period social depictions cheesy? Absolutely. But in and around that was an interesting story, with a simple premise--recover the stolen property--and characters I could root for.

In the end I liked this book. No, I'm not adding Jane Austen to my To Read list any time soon, but I can recommend this one to just about anyone who appreciates a good book in any genre. As I expected, Nix applied his ability to create characters we root for, in a setting that intrigues us, and then wove a plot around them all that kept things moving and gave a satisfying conclusion. Yes, good writers write good books.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh, #1)Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Mary Poppins after watching Saving Mr. Banks and the latest Mary Poppins movie sequel that came out, and I found the children's book a much more interesting read after that. It was still a rough read for me, but having other data points to distract me from the aged style, and absence of a plot really helped. I recently watched two movies about Christopher Robin, and read the Tao of Pooh, after which I put this book on my to-read list, and here we are.

What would have been a mediocre children's book experience was again, interesting. Stories I had watched in movies, and seen in rides at Disneyland, were now given context. Thankfully, it was less random than Mary Poppins, but it did have some similar classic features. Slower in pace and with more whimsical characters, Winnie the Pooh actually carried plots better in short story form than Mary Poppins.

It was a good opportunity to try to understand the backdrop of Milne life when he wrote this book. It puts it in context, and for me actually improved the experience.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

White Sand, Volume 2 by Brandon Sanderson

White Sand, Volume 2 (White Sand, #2)White Sand, Volume 2 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I said a lot in my review of White Sand, Volume 1, and most of that still applies. I don't prefer the graphic novel presentation, but it is still a Sanderson story. It has all of the depth and character development I look forward to, but I feel like I'm not getting the full effect. I was also under the impression for some reason that this book was going to wrap up the story, making it more of an extended short story. I was wrong on that count as well. Now I guess I have to wait for the next one to come out to know what happens next, and I have again broken my personal pledge to not start series that are not complete. Now the waiting begins...