Monthly Archives: February 2009

“American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld

A character-driven story about Alice Blackwell, a small town girl who meets and falls in love with a rising Republican hot-shot from her home state of Wisconsin. The strength of this story comes from the first-person narration by Alice and the way the story is told. Each of the four sections of the story are defined by a place Alice lives and she tells the story of not only what’s going on in her life at the time, but fills in certain details to help clue you in on the overall pattern of her life. It ends up making the story feel very conversational, like sitting down with an old friend and catching up a bit.

The first hundred or so pages are all about establishing who Alice is, before we see her meet Charlie, the young Republican hot-shot whose star is on the rise. Despite being a Democrat, Alice finds herself falling for him and the two engaged in a whirlwind romance before getting engaged after just six weeks.

The writing style of the book is well done and while it’s not breaking any new ground, the voice of Alice still feels fresh, authentic and real. Watching Charlie’s star rise until he achieves the ultimate in political success is fascinating. Even more fascinating is that the story here is loosely based on the story of former first lady Laura Bush. In the end, we get to see the private side of the political office and the toll it can take on any relationship. It may even persuade some to look past a politican’s policies and see that there is a human being behind them, who in the end isn’t really all that different from you or I

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“The Steel Remains” by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan has made a career of taking the familar elements of science-fiction, breaking them down and building them into something that respects its past but it willing to challenge readers by trying something new. After a successful and award-winning run in sci-fi, Morgan is now turning to the world of fantasy to take the familar and make it new and fresh again.

“The Steel Remains” is the first of a new trilogy by Morgan. The story has the usual fantasy tropes on display–a hero with a glorious past, fuedal power plays, a new power from outside the kingdom that is slowly becoming a threat. But Morgan is able to take each of these and stamp his own signature on them, which is part of what makes “Remains” such a refreshing entry in the fantasy genre. Morgan pays homage to the roots of the genre, but doesn’t let them show when he colors them a different way.

One of the most interesting is how Morgan creates his charcters. Just as he does in “Altered Carbon,” his protagonists aren’t exactly the most loveable of people. Morgan’s strength is drawing characters who are shades of gray and having readers root for those people because they’re actually fully, fleshed out and realized characters and not your typical genre archetypes. On the surface, one character, Ringil, sounds like a typical fantasy hero. He’s had his past glories, he’s estranged from his family but he’s willing to do the right thing when push comes to shove. Morgan is able to subvert the usual expectations of the classic sword-wielding fantasy hero with the backstory of Ringil, including why he’s estranged from his powerful family and doesn’t get along with his father. I won’t tell you what that is here–Morgan tells you quickly within the first few chapters. But watching the flashbacks of the events will be far more entertaining and interesting for readers to discover for themselves.

Ringil is called upon by his mother to look into the disappearance of a cousin. The cousin was sold into marriage to pay a debt, but Mom thinks something more is going on. Ringil reluctantly takes the assignment and soon finds the world is changing and there’s some kind of threat from outside the realm that is slowly creeping into things. Ringil is joined by friends to look into this and Morgan slowly gives readers all the pieces of the puzzle. Satisfyingly enough, this novel can stand on its own with most of the central conflict wrapped up before you turn the last page. But Morgan is shrewd enough to offer hints of things to come that could be picked up in future volumes. It seems that just as he did with the “Altered Carbon” novels, he’s working on a continuing series that isn’t so interconnected that readers can’t drop in the middle and not feel hopelessly lost. You may miss some of the character development or some nuances, but overall you’re going to be able to enjoy the story a single novel is telling on its own merits.

It’s something I wish a lot of other genre publishers would realize fans want these days.

This is a mature novel–it deals with a lot of mature themes and it does contain Morgan’s signature coarse language. If you can’t wrap your head around fantasy characters prodigiously using the f-bomb, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you want something new, different and yet very much in the fantasy tradition of the greats of the genre, then “The Steel Remains” is definitely a must read

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Series Challenge: “Jericho Point” by Meg Gardiner

After hitting a series high point with “Mission Canyon,” the Evan Delaney series comes back to earth a bit with the third installment in the series.

After two books to introduce Evan and her world to us, Meg Gardiner puts Evan and readers through the wringer in “Jericho Point.” Evan finds out she’s the victim of identity theft and the lead suspect is her fiancee’s younger brother. Things get messy for Evan when the local loan shark starts calling in a loan made her in name and one of the suspects washes up on the beach, the apparent victim of a murder.

“Jericho Point” starts at a furious pace and never lets up, which may be part of the problem facing the book. We start the story on the run and it takes a few chapters to really figure out who everyone is and how they relate to the mystery plot slowly unfolding in the story. There’s a huge amount of plot thrust on readers in the first fifty pages and while I don’t want to sit around and read a plot summary of the first two books, it would be nice to have a moment or two to get warmed up before events start coming fast and furious.

The book proceeds at a good clip with Evan being put through the wringer both physically and emotionally. Eventually, the elements begin to slowly unravel as the pieces begin to fall into place. Readers are treated to some details before Evan, to both add to the suspense and, in some ways, take away from the driving force of the narrative in the last third of the book. And it’s the last third of the book where the problems really come into play. Things suddenly go into hyperdrive with logic and reason thrown out the window. Yes, the mystery fits together in the end, but there are still some things in the final third of the book that come about simply to service the plot and not actually to move things forward in a natural way. I ended up spending the last third of the book rolling my eyes far too many times and wondering how much more we could pile on before things reached a resolution.

Not a good sign.

I wanted to love this novel a lot more than I did. The first two-thirds are good, the last third will leave you scratching your head.

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42 Challenge Update

Here’s my progress on this year’s “42 Challenge”

1. Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (book)
2. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (book)
3. Doctor Who and the Time Warrior by Terrance Dicks (audio book)
4. Doctor Who: City of Death (DVD)
5. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (book)
6. Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card (book)
7. Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matt Stover (book)
8. Daemon by Matt Suarez (book)
9. Spider-Man 2.1 (DVD)

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“Seventh Son” by Orson Scott Card

Alvin Miller, Jr is the seventh son of a seventh son. He’s born into an alternate version of 19th Century America–one in which the Revolutionary War hasn’t happened and where folk magic is a strong, powerful and very real force.

Alvin is a maker, a strong and potentially powerful force in the world. And he’s got an equally strong, unrelenting enemy, the Unmaker who stop at nothing to ensure Alvin doesn’t grow up and into his power. Much of the novel looks at the efforts the Unmaker uses to try and destroy Alvin. It also examines the story of how Alvin comes to realize he has abilities and how he can and can’t use them. At one point, Alvin selfishly uses some cockroaches to terrorize his sisters, leading to several fo them dying. At this point, Alvin makes a vow to not use his powers for selfish gains, a decision that becomes pivotal in the final stages of the novel.

As with “Ender’s Game” the strength of Orson Scott Card’s story is his ability to relate authentic, believable young characters. While not quite as complex as Ender, Alvin is still interesting and relatable while still feeling and acting like a young boy would in the circusmtances. Alvin doesn’t seem to realize he has a destiny, though he does realize he has something that sets him apart from others around him.

The story is far more episodic than “Ender’s Game” though. The first portion of the novel, relating the day Alvin, Jr is born was originally a short story. Card then decided to expand the universe and does so here, as we check in with Alvin at various other points in his life. It ends up feeling a bit too episodic at times and while the novel is supposed to introduce us to Alvin and his universe, I still can’t help coming away feeling like the overall experience was incomplete. Alvin learns to use his powers, yes. And we know that the Unmaker is after Alvin, set to destroy him. But beyond that, nothing much really happens to Alvin, except for a number of potential attacks on him that we get to see Alvin avert. A few more happen off stage as well, referenced by various characters during the course of the story.

This feels like a long prologue to a greater saga. I know there are five other novels in the story but I found myself yearning for something a bit more substantial once the final page was turned. It’s easy now that I can go out and find the next book, but I imagine those who read the story when it was first published walked away frustrated at having to wait at least a year for the next installment to hit bookstores.

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Weekly Geeks

This week’s Weekly Geek is inspired by Dewey’s Knit-a-Long, a mini challenge of Dewey’s Reading Challenge. Dewey had other passions besides reading and blogging. Knitting was one of them. This made me think, what are the Weekly Geek’s other passions?


#1. What are you passionate about besides reading and blogging? For example, are you crafty (knitting, woodworking, scrapbooking, model building)? Do you cook? Into gaming (computer or board)? Sports (player or spectator)? Photography? Maybe you like geocaching, rock climbing? Or love attending events like renaissance fairs, concerts? Music? Dancing? You get the idea.

Tell us why you’re passionate about it. Post photos of what you’ve made or of yourself doing whatever it is you love doing.

 

I am a very avid TV watcher, in addition to my reading.  My current “must see” shows include Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, The Big Bang Theory and The Office.  All-time favorites include Doctor Who (my one true obsession), Star Trek (original series), any show by Joss Whedon, Seinfeld, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Sledge Hammer….the list could go on and on for days.

 

I’m also a passionate University of Tennesse fan.  I think passionate may be understating it a lot.  If they’re on and playing I am watching.  Football, baseball, basketball, softball, pick up sticks, underwater basket weaving….

 

And I have a passion for swimming.  I swim laps daily and have joined a Master’s Swim Team to help improve my technique and physical fitness. And so I can enjoy good food…


#2. Get us involved. Link to tutorials, recipes, Youtube videos, websites, fan sites, etc, anything that will help us learn more about your interest or how to do your hobby. Maybe you’d like to link to another hobbyist whose work you admire or tell us about a book or magazine related to your interest.

The Official BBC Doctor Who web site
UT Sports


#3. Visit other Weekly Geeks. Link in your post to other Geeks who’ve peaked your interest in their passion. Or maybe you might find a fellow afincionado among us, link to them.

I’m working on that…

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“13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher

Clay Jensen arrives home from school to find a package waiting on his front porch. Inside are seven cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a girl at his school who recently committed suicide and a note explaining that the tapes will tell the story of why Hannah made the decision she did and the events that led up to it. Also included is a map with red stars indicating where some of the pivotal events occur.

Clay had a crush on Hannah, but due to her reputation thought he wasn’t “advanced” enough for her. The two did connect at a party and Clay is curious to find out why he’s mentioned on the tapes and what impact he had on Hannah’s decision. So, he begins to listen as the story unfolds in Hannah’s own voice.

New novelist, Jay Asher, says he got the idea for this book while walking around a guided tour of a museum–hearing a voice on the earphones that wasn’t there but was talking directly to him. Asher takes the concept and expands it with the story of Hannah.

I listened to this book on audio CD and that may have helped things a lot. I’ve looked at the print edition and see that Hannah’s story is told in italics while Clay’s is done in standard print. While this could become tired on the printed page (the two tend to interrupt each other a lot as we hear Clay’s reaction), it works well on the audio with the two characters stories flowing together and almost forming a conversation of sorts.

As for the story itself, it’s a nice idea but it becomes a bit heavy-handed at the end. Hannah has had some setbacks in her life and Asher makes a lot of interesting points about how reputations can define a person for both good and bad. Hannah gets a reputation as being easy after a boy brags that he got to second base in the park when she first moved to town. And when a guy publishes the “hot or not” list with Hannah listed as “best butt,” it also creates complications. And as the novel progresses and Hannah becomes more and more frustrated that her desperate pleas for help are being ignored by everyone around her, things do become a bit melodramatic. It’s almost as if Asher is trying too hard to make his point in the final few days of Hannah’s life instead of allowing us to truly understand her decision.

Or maybe that is the point. Maybe it’s that suicide is an illogical, irrational thing that can’t be explained easily. If that’s the case, Asher has succeeded.

But I still found the Hannah of the last third of the book becoming too self-absorbed for my liking. It’s hard to like her at times. Again, this may be the point. We are seeing a side of her she doesn’t want known. Hannah wants someone to notice and ask what’s wrong or come to her in a way that people can’t or won’t. It ends up making her final choice both frustrating to those left behind and shows the selfishness of it. At several points, Clay references Hannah’s parents and their withdrawal from the community in the wake of Hannah’s suicide. The two own a shoe store and a quick comment made early in the novel about competition from a new mall in town and then the shoe store being closed for several weeks hits home as you realize the toll the decision takes on her family.

It may also be “easier” for me being older than Hannah to realize that while high school can be hell, one can survive and grow beyond it. I can see how the moments Hannah experiences are intense and they would be damage to a high school person who is already on shaky ground.

In the end, “13 Reasons Why” is a story that has some fascinating questions raised, but no easy answers. It’s a book I’d recommend to young adults to read though parents should be ready for some discussion and possible questions about the decisions made by not only Hannah, but several other characters in the novel. The novel is frank and direct, so be warned.

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