Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

This is my first Murakami. And I understand it's not typical in the sense that it's... well, it's kind of a kids' book. Kind of. It's short (less than 100 pages) and maybe 40% of those pages have pictures, and the font is big, and it's about a kid (like elementary-middle school age). But it's dark and surreal and wonderful. (and it's not a kids' book)

A kid goes to the library and wants to look into some books about a topic he thought about, so he's directed down to the basement, to room 107. From there, he's further directed into the labyrinth of the basement of the library... which he didn't know existed. He's thus trapped and must find his way out with the help of a "mysterious girl" and a "tormented sheep man" (from the publisher's description of the book).

No more should be said and, given how long this book will take you to read (not long at all), that's all that needs to be said.

I know not everyone loved this. But I sure did. It was just a dip into the surreal. And though there was so much sadness explaining the dip, the foray was so deftly woven. I am VERY much looking forward to more Murakami!

5 of 5 stars.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Ok, so yes, this is another YA dystopian novel, and yes it shares a lot of common features w/ Hunger Games, Divergent, and Lord of the Flies (among others, I understand), and yet, it is GOOD.

Darrow is a Red -- he's born to serve the other colors with his strength, speed, and perseverance. His ancestors have been sent to Mars to get it ready for terraforming, such that the others can eventually join them and live on the planet.

Only... that's already happened. They just "forgot" to tell the Reds, down below the surface. So they slave away (quite literally), generation after generation.

Until some Reds grow tired of serving the other colors of the human race. Darrow's young wife is one such Red -- she dreams of a time when Reds will be free and equal. And she is taken from Darrow in the most complete of ways for her dreams.

Darrow is allowed a chance to seek his revenge and to perhaps someday see Eo (his wife)'s dreams realized. He is placed in the belly of the beast and we shall see how he can survive.

I ... that's really just the beginning. I don't want to say much more because I think the discovery is much of the charm. (Or you can also just read other reviews if you want more ;))

What's good: Ya know, despite it being just another teen dystopia, it's really good! It's somehow really interesting. Brown has created many sympathetic characters, Reds, Purples, Pinks, and Golds alike. Although the story is written from Darrow's first person perspective, you feel like you really get a sense of what others are feeling and thinking. And that too -- it's written in first person, which is initially jarring and off-putting and ... well, odd, given Darrow's personality. But it actually makes sense for this story. And I think, ultimately, it's how the story needed to be presented. Although Darrow often comes off as an arrogant, thoughtless, typical teen ... you also see growth and understanding and shame - all from his own perspective.

What's not as good. So... yeah, all the comparisons to other YA dystopia are pretty strong. It's Lord of the Flies in that teens are left to their own devices and, as such, there are terrible consequences. It's Hunger Games in that the battles that are being fought are not, necessarily, for others' amusements, but .. well, they are. And it's not actually war .. just kind of play-war. And it's Divergent in the way the teens' rankings are continual and posted and ... brutal and seemingly immoral. (and I know, that's not really clear, but again, I don't want to give anything away :)) So right, it's not terribly original. There's some originality there and it's written well enough, but the story is not really new. And then there are times where the story feels repetitive and redundant ... where maybe it could have repeated the patterns a little less and moved a little more quickly.

But all in all, a quite enjoyable read, and I am definitely looking forward to the 2nd in this trilogy.

I also think it's important to note that there should be mild trigger warnings -- no graphic descriptions, but rape comes up a fair amount in this book, even just the existence of it. No real scenes, no descriptions, just ... it comes up a bit. So mild trigger warnings for the particularly sensitive.

Overall, FOUR of five stars.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My response in a sort of nutshell: It is so well written. Tartt seems to have really gotten into the minds of her characters to draw out their personalities and emotions and philosophies. The "happenings" -- i.e., what is actually going on -- for/in each phase of the book (Theo at ages 13, 14, 19, etc.) are quite interesting. The characters are all lovely -- even the ones you don't like! Of course Hobie is a favorite... reminds me a bit of a really smart Hagrid ;)  But. The only real "but" I have is there are a *lot* of pontifications... Theo is often musing on big life questions and Tartt herself seems to be inserting her own reflections by way of her various lists. These lists are not bulleted or numbered, of course, but I mean, she'll take a concept and then take it all the way to the end -- rather than simply stating something like "there were a lot of annoying types of people," she'll go through and list 'em all. Which is interesting and, as I say, SO well written... but sometimes made the whole thing feel drawn out a little bit much.

The synopsis in a smaller nutshell: Theo Decker loses his mom when he's a child -- only 13 years old. That's not a spoiler, you know that right away. The book takes you through Theo's life and covers all the consequences, physical and emotional and psychological, for the next ~14 years (not year-by-year, but more like phase of life by phase of life). I simply cannot say more about the plot because that would be a spoiler... but suffice it to say that Theo's life does NOT follow the normal trajectory, not even for someone whose mother died when he was 13.

Overall, a really excellent piece of literature. It's not a beach-read, nor a quick read, nor a plot-driven adventure. But it is engaging and cozy. Somehow, you feel wrapped up in the blanket of Tartt's novel, notwithstanding all the philosophical ponderings and rage and depression.

Definitely recommend... but make sure you have the time!
FOUR of five stars

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

It's not your standard mystery -- no detectives or cops (really).  Rather, it's sort of a family saga, multi-generational historical fiction with a compelling mystery wrapped up in it. It's a quick read, and it's one of those that is highly satisfying when it's all said and done.

What's it about? The blurb (so I don't inadvertently add anything by attempting my own synopsis ;)): "During a picnic at her family’s farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson witnesses a shocking crime, a crime that challenges everything she knows about her adored mother, Dorothy. Now, fifty years later, Laurel and her sisters are meeting at the farm to celebrate Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this is her last chance to discover the truth about that long-ago day, Laurel searches for answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past. Clue by clue, she traces a secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds thrown together in war-torn London—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—whose lives are forever after entwined. A gripping story of deception and passion, The Secret Keeper will keep you enthralled to the last page." (from Amazon)

It has plenty of "what?!" and "a-ha!" and "no ... that can't be..." moments, and an abundance of "aww" and "so sweet!" and other touching and moving moments. It's a great book for discussion and a great book for pondering.

The only things that I thought could use some improvement, as far as the writing was concerned, are the following: (1) I felt that there were a few characters who seemed like bit characters or those you didn't need to "hold onto" in your brain that later turned out to matter.... and so I found myself flipping back and forth a bit more than normal to try to remember who is this person that suddenly I'm supposed to remember; and (2) I thought the end, though great and satisfying in many ways, was a little abrupt. Can't say more, but there you have it.

Overall, a great book. I'm happy that my 2nd Morton didn't disappoint!
Definitely recommend.
FOUR (plus) of five stars.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Phone Company by David Jacob Knight

Review based on free copy received in exchange for an honest review.

The plot was a big hook for me. Smart phones have advanced so much that they can now do things that seem like magic. Their new apps can diagnose car troubles, detect real-time popularity in a high school, and give an accurate lie detector test for cops, to name just a few. Oh, and yeah, maybe a couple people have reconnected with their dead loved ones as well.

But when the company in charge of the newest, smartest phone out there, the Tether, sets to open a new base in a small town in Montana, one father (Steve) thinks the phones and the Phone Company (PCo) have taken it all a step too far.

Not only do the apps seem to have abilities that defy logic and scientific understanding, but there almost seems to be some sinister plot lurking under the shiny new surface.

First, PCo offers free phones to all faculty and students at the school -- some sort of grant project that allows them to do research, perhaps. Steve declines the use of the fancy new phone---mostly because he is just stuck on his old phone - the phones he and his wife used before she died of cancer five years ago. But because of this decision, he's sort of "sober" while the rest of the town gets sucked under by the amazing new phone and its apps that seem designed JUST FOR YOU.

So yeah, it's a little sci-fi, a little horror, a little lovecraftian paranormal thriller.  Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I loved the creativity with regard to the apps and how they ended up playing out IRL (in real life ;)). It did drag a little in the 3rd quarter and there seemed to be a little repetition with Steve's a-little-too-slow realization that PCo may be quite a bit more than it appears, but overall, a great read. And just creepy enough to keep me awake late into the night...

FOUR of five stars.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Review based on ARC.

Moriarty is the new book by Anthony Horowitz, touted as the only author approved by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle.  I understand [House of Silk] to be an excellent piece of "Holmes" literature, though I have not read it myself. Although I have not read Doyle myself, my husband is a big fan, I intend to read the books someday soon, and I am a huge fan of the BBC's newest Sherlock series and, in particular, think the actor cast as Moriarty therein has made him one of the more intriguing characters in literature. So I was rather excited to have won a copy of Moriarty.

I was disappointed. The plot is interesting enough.. New York Pinkerton detective Chase heads to England in pursuit of one of the worst criminal masterminds America has seen, Clarence Devereux, who himself has purportedly headed to London to hook up with Moriarty in an effort to expand his criminal enterprise. However, Chase discovers that Moriarty and Holmes (and/or their cohorts) have just committed double homicide on one another at Reichenbach Falls. Chase follows the body, hoping to be given an opportunity to find a letter from Devereux to Moriarty discussing their suggested partnership. Thus he meets Scotland Yard investigator Athelney Jones, who has previously appeared in Watson's own explanations of Holmes investigations as a somewhat bumbling idiot. Jones has devoted many efforts to discerning Holmes' own investigation methods, and Chase and Jones create a sort of Holmes-Watson duo... like, the kid version.

Together, they set forth to try to hunt down Devereux, bodies piling up left and right in the brutalist of manners as they go. All the while, Chase ponders the apparent ill-information Watson has provided regarding Reichenbach falls and contemplates what really happened, and how.

So all that sounds great! And the plot wasn't bad. But... it wasn't really good either. It was choppy and weirdly paced and felt like ... it felt a little like a novice author. Which I know is not the case! And the conversations were weird -- they didn't feel normal even for the timeframe in which they were occurring. And it almost felt like Horowitz was trying to fit a puzzle and "make it work," rather than simply telling a story.

However, as I say, it *was* interesting. And it had some compelling reveals and turns. And the ending certainly redeemed a lot of what happened in the rest of the book (though I won't even hint at what that means because it is worth discovering on your own). Also, there was some interesting foreshadowing.. Although the ultimate reveal was somewhat predictable and a little unbelievable, I enjoyed it all the same.

So, overall? I thought this hyped-up book was not particularly well done. The language was inorganic, the relationships were stilted, and I just never felt like I was really there in the story... On the plus side, as mentioned, it was interesting, had some good plot development, and the end added a bit of credit.

Recommended to .... well, I think this is best recommended to people who need more Holmes, however they can get it. And maybe recommended to other Holmes fans, just with the understanding that it's not amazing.

THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Green Man by Michael Bedard

Review based on ARC.

What a lovely teen fantasy. Bedard pays tribute to bookstores, creativity and poetry, and the Green Man himself in his aptly named book. The Green Man is the bookstore owned by Ophelia's ("O") aunt Emily, named after the legend of the Green Man, a protector who stands between the worlds and where life began. While O's father travels to research Ezra Pound, he sends O to Emily for the summer in a dual effort to ensure both are taken care of. Initially, fifteen-year-old O and seventy-year-old Emily clash in some to-be-expected ways, but eventually their similarities and common love of poetry and all things related thereto draw them into a very close relationship. Although each believes she is really taking care of the other, Bedard has deftly created an actual dual relationship that feels organic and true.

While visiting Emily at the Green Man, O learns about not only the magic of poetry and poets, but also about a recurring sinister plan that continues to plague her aunt and the town in which she lives. Saying much more about the plot would ruin it, so I won't.

What I will say is that I loved this little YA novel that is atmospheric, soft, and lovely. It has ghosts and books and hot summers. It lifts up jazz and pays homage to the receding world of used bookstores. There is also darkness and hard life, an acknowledgment of the deterioration of such a world and the effects it can and does have on real people. It is somewhat gothic and somewhat romantic.  It is simple as a YA, but will appeal to book and bookstore lovers alike. To me, it gave just a little of a lot, just enough to satiate, just enough to squeeze your heart and then leave you for a peaceful night's sleep.

Highly recommended.
FOUR AND A HALF of five stars (boosted to 5 on sites w/o halves).

I note that I am *not* typically a fan of poetry. While this novel is about poets at its heart, and the power of poetry to those moved by it, and while this novel occasionally drops a poem here and there, it is not overdone and definitely did not turn me off, despite my natural disinclination to poetry.