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.)

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...