Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – On Chesil Beach

Category : Book Review

Author: Ian McEwan

Year: 2007

I picked up On Chesil Beach because the film version was coming out, and because I have read Atonement multiple times, a modern classic by McEwan that transports and stuns.  I didn’t figure Chesil Beach to be as strong as Atonement, and it wasn’t; that particular success was one in a million.  But this English writer has unmistakable talent, and an eye for dropping audiences into a situation that we wish we could fix, to stop the inevitable disaster that is about to occur.  He has a knack for putting us on the spot and making us feel helpless, while his characters spin out of control in a way that’s all too human.  That’s the basis of this story as well; men and women doing the one thing that should come most naturally to them, but losing their grip on the reins.

Florence and Edward have just been married; a young English couple of the 1960s who abide by the rules and expectations of that society, and are thereby  both terrified by sex.  On their honeymoon, alone together at last, they reflect on the steps that brought them to this point, and on a love for each other that can’t be denied, but may not have been thought through terribly thoroughly.  Florence has an aversion to anything sexual, and has never been comfortable with Edward when he awkwardly attempts any such thing.  Edward has been abstaining from self pleasure in order to fully enjoy this important moment, a decision that is bound to have disastrous consequences.  Neither can communicate their fears and desires to each other, being too proper for such a conversation, and so their fledgling marriage may not last the night.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the margins, and that was also the first warning sign.  The margins around the paragraphs were enormous, like the words were poetry set in the exact middle instead of a real narrative of a real story.  The book was short anyway, the type was large; the margins being so huge only told the reader that there wasn’t enough written to fill the page, or to warrant being called a novel.  It’s much more a novella, and I wish I had read it as such, as a part of a collection, or that the author had chosen a path.  Either flesh it out because it can support that or pare it down because it can’t; McEwan did the story a disservice by leaving it in the middle.  So it read strangely, without a real flow or cadence, and that was a big problem.  The end came suddenly and the summary of the characters lives after felt like it was thrown in; I think the book would have been stronger had it been chopped in half.  The first section was solid, I hope that is what’s turned into a movie, because that I want to see; the rest I could do without.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Room

Category : Book Review

Author: Emma Donoghue

Year: 2010

Donoghue’s novel was adapted into the film Room in 2015, considered by many to be the second best film of the year behind Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Room was nominated for four Oscars, Brie Larson winning for Best Actress, so the movie version was a smash success.  I just got around to reading the book, which is based on real events around the globe, specifically a kidnapping case in Austria, while the movie is based in Ohio, where similar real events also took place.  The story is extremely sad, but ultimately hopeful, and the film did the novel justice, especially by sticking to the source material rather well.  But here’s a rare case where the movie is better than the book, the time restraints of cinema working in the plot’s favor instead of destroying its natural rhythm.

In a place called Room, Jack lives with his Ma. They and Old Nick, a man who comes at night sometimes, are the only people in existence. Everything else is just TV; animals, fancy foods, other humans. And outside Room is outer space, a vast sky of nothingness that, of course, isn’t safe. The things in the room are the only things that matter; Lamp, Bath, Sink, Wardrobe. This is Jack’s existence, and the locked door that Nick comes through might as well be a gateway to another dimension. Little does Jack know that he & his mother are captives in artificial space, that she once lived a normal life outside, and that Nick is not their friend. As times grow more desperate, Jack will be sent on a daring mission by his mother in order to earn their freedom, a quest that will take him outside for the first time, an event that will change his life forever.

Sometimes you like what you experience first when it comes to the book vs the movie, and sometimes one is simply better than the other.  In my experience, the novel is usually the better bet, but in this case the film outshone its inspiration, but that might be because the story was desperate to be shorter, not longer.  The first half of the book is inside Room, and that’s where it’s magic.  The writing works wonderfully from the perspective of a little boy, I love the use of his language, and you feel how trapped this pair is, one happily and one despondently.  It’s when they leave Room that the writing begins to feel tedious and unnecessary, like the point was already made and we don’t need to hear more.  The film was like that too; near perfect until Ma & Jack started living outside, by then it was time to wrap things up.  So the limitations helped the movie be better than the book, which started declining about halfway through and needed to be cut off sooner.  Still, it’s a powerful story and a well-orchestrated concept, a book club discussion read if ever there was one, and something I’m glad I picked up.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Atonement

Category : Book Review

Author: Ian McEwan

Year: 2001

I committed the cardinal sin when it comes to Atonement; I saw the movie before reading the book.  But, in my defense, it was an Oscar-nominated movie, and I did go back and read the book after the fact.  This is actually my second time reading the novel; it was that good the first time around.  It’s one of those rare stories that was captured brilliantly by the film, most likely because it’s not too laden with action, relies heavily on the words, and so filmmakers don’t have to stuff it all into 90 minutes in the editing room.  It somehow works as wordy introspection in book-form and as quick simplicity in movie-form; maybe that just shows how great McEwan did with the writing, it doesn’t matter how you absorb this plot, it’s simply excellent it whatever form.

The story is presented in three acts, with a postscript to tie up the details.  All are excellent, but it’s the first part that sets the stage and the tone, that really feeds us the meat.  The Tallis family live on a beautiful estate in England without a care in the world.  Or at least, they did, before Hitler and his talk of war, but even that is somewhere in the near future, not in the present, which is a hot summer in the country.  Father is at work in the city, Mother is resting with one of her migraines, Leon, the eldest brother, is on his way home, Cecilia, the sister, is back from school, and Briony, the baby, is writing a play for the occasion.  Three cousins are come to stay pending their parents’ divorce, so the house is quite crowded and chaotic.  Briony happens upon three moments between Cecelia and Robbie, a young man whose mother is a servant, that will change the course of all their lives: an exchange by the fountain, a passed note, and a meeting in the library.  Briony’s childish assumptions surrounding these events will lead her to accuse Robbie of a crime later in the evening, sending all of their futures into a downward spiral that there is absolutely no stopping.

So part one is the introduction, but it’s about half the book, and contains most of the action.  Part two is focused on Robbie, part three is Briony grown a bit, and the postscript settles all accounts.  It’s a phenomenally written book, if a bit long-winded and British, if that makes sense, a sweeping melodrama about love and guilt and regret that isn’t exactly easy to read.  But it is beautiful to experience, there is so much more worth that work written here, so much to enjoy despite the melancholy.  Briony is a great character, Robbie allows us to see Dunkirk from an interesting angle, the end will make you weep bitterly when the author reveals the final truths of what happened that night in the country, and what has been ruined by it since.  Read with confidence, especially if you like this period, because you will feel transported there, even though the novel was written in modern times.  And check out the film as well, which is a strong representation of a stellar book.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection

Category : Book Review

Editor: Gardner Dozois

Year: 2017

For my 34th birthday last year, a friend gave me the new Annual Collection book, with stories gathered by Gardner Dozois, which happened to be in its 34th addition, cool coincidence.  Dozois brings together the best short sci-fi of the year into one large volume, this time with thirty-nine different tales.  Dozois is a fine author himself (When the Great Days Come) and knows his sci-fi front & back, even editing the Asimov Science Fiction magazine for twenty years.  I almost wish I had read more of his novellas instead of those he gleaned over the course of the year, because what he selected was rather inconsistent.

Thirty-nine different stories from almost as many authors, with names like Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds leading the group.  The tales range in plot, world, and time, but all come from a love of science fiction and a passion for writing with pure imagination.  The ocean levels have risen, leading to floating cities all over the world.  Humans live on distant planets, homesteading in space like their ancestors did so long ago on Earth.  Sentient squids under miles of ice create their own society, and dream of what the sky might look like.  These and many others will ignite your curiosity and take you far away.

I always enjoy reading sci-fi shorts, it’s a fascinating way to be introduced to an idea or a technology in a small amount of time, to get a taste of what another world might look like, before launching into a new adventure.  Sometimes these stories don’t really have a ton of character and plot behind them, so a small sample is all we need to really be entertained.  The problem is that some of these authors aren’t the best, won’t compare to Asimov or Heinlein or Clarke or Le Guin, and so might put avid sci-fi readers off with their lack of pure talent.  It seemed that every other tale was lackluster, that the entire volume was hit or miss, with no consistency in quality.  But I guess that’s something you sign up for when reading an anthology; not every chapter will be your favorite.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – American Gods

Category : Book Review

Author: Neil Gaiman

Year: 2001

Neil Gaiman has a particular obsession with mythology, especially Norse mythology, and that interest is right up my alley.  I’ve always been fascinated with the gods, Greek and Roman, but also Norse, from the naming of our planets and days of the week to their archetypal appearance in so many of the fantasy books I read growing up.  And also, I was brought up religious, but have now turned that knowledge into an understanding of Christian mythology as well, how the stories we hear as children shape our belief systems, even if they are completely fabricated and unbelievable.  Gaiman swings for the fences with American Gods, an epic novel on the struggle to reconcile ancient traditions with modern technology, with a fantasy flare that will capture the imaginations of that genre’s nerd contingent.

Shadow counts down the days until he is released from prison for a petty crime gone wrong, until he can return to his loving wife Laura and the simple existence he knew before his giant mistake.  But he is let out early for a terrible reason; Laura has died, and Shadow is free to go, though now nothing waits for him back home.  Consumed by grief and the inability to see a future ahead, he runs into the same man twice, seemingly coincidentally, although Shadow will soon learn that there are no such things as chance encounters.  The man gives his name as Mr. Wednesday, and he asks for Shadow to work for him, to be his driver and right hand man, to stand his vigil if he is ever struck down, whatever that might mean.  A war is coming, and Wednesday is in the process of rounding up some very special people to fight on his side, people who aren’t exactly human, who have been biding their time for centuries, who are tired of the changing landscape of America and are ready to die to protect their legends.

I know a good bit about various mythologies, but even I had to reference some articles every now and then to keep the characters straight, to understand who they were in secret, behind the names they gave readers.  Just don’t find out too much, you wouldn’t want to spoil anything, because there are some twists in Shadow’s road, and the surprises are worth your time.  The novel is as well, a story that pulls from mythology, makes excellent observations on modern culture, and puts a fascinating figure forward as the main character, someone we can rely on, root for, and see ourselves in, no matter what awful decisions he is forced to make.  The book is definitely written in an unusual style, it takes some getting used to, but if you are brave enough to invest you will be rewarded with something special.  Gaiman is a ceaseless fountain of literature, but you may have heard of or read some of his major works: Neverwhere, Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants.  Make sure to add American Gods to your book list if you’ve enjoyed those or any others from Gaiman; it’s his most adventurous and ambitious, and quite worth your time.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Matilda

Category : Book Review

Author: Roald Dahl

Year: 1988

Since receiving a Roald Dahl box set of books as a gift, my family & I have been enjoying reading these classic novels together, and I have enjoyed revisiting stories I read & loved so many years ago.  Dahl wrote with such whimsy, combined with a darkness that’s always present, but with happy endings that make for fantastic fantasies.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox are some we’ve read together, and all are great stories made into good movies.  Here’s another in Matilda, a book with a sad element, an adventure unlike any other, and ultimately a pleasant finish that captures the imaginations of adults & children alike.

Matilda Wormwood doesn’t exactly fit into her family.  Her father is a ratty used car salesman, her mother only enjoys bingo, and her brother is simply following in the footsteps of his unimaginative parents.  Matilda loves books, and at an early age realizes that they are a way to transport her out of her stifling existence into lands of mystery and entertainment.  She can read books much over her level, Charles Dickens is her favorite, and even before she enters school she’s showing signs of incredible genius.  She can even move objects with her mind, a power she discovers when confronted by her terrible principle The Trunchbull, who is the exact opposite of Matilda’s sweet teacher Ms. Honey, the only adult who understands her aptitude.

This might not be my absolute favorite Roald Dahl story, mostly because it doesn’t exactly have an action-packed element like some of his others, but I enjoyed it all the same, a pleasant tale of a special child whose life is darkened by adults but whose destiny is much brighter.  Matilda is a great character, and her antics at school are the stuff of legend, as is the great Trunchbull, a demon of an educator who rivals the best villains of modern literature.  Dahl writes with such simplicity, you don’t get blindsided by surprises or twists, you simply sail along with events until you reach what is usually a happy ending.  Read for a nice time, share it with you kids, keep the magic alive.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Annihilation

Category : Book Review

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Year: 2014

I first heard of Annihilation as a film, to be released this coming February.  You can watch the trailer here; it has a very unique sci-fi feel, but also seems like a combination of many others, so I’m interested to see how it will turn out.  The fact that it is written/directed by the creator of Ex Machina, Alex Garland, is reason enough to get me in the theatre to see it, so I’ll report back on the movie as soon as watch, and hopefully I’ll have great things to say.  Meanwhile, the original novel was a big hit when it was published, but I hadn’t read it, so I figured that was something I should remedy before the film is released next year.  I was not disappointed in the quality of the book, as I can often be when reading something from a Bestsellers list; sometimes I don’t see eye to eye with the general populace.  But in this case, I thought Annihilation was an excellent read, an incredible story, and just another reason to anticipate the film version.

A biologist sets out, with a team of other women, into an uncharted zone called Area X, a place where teams of scientists and soldiers have been sent many times, with varying but always concerning results.  Once across an obscure border, life changes, and perceptions cannot always be trusted.  The members of the team all have different objectives, may have had different training, and are all hypnotized in order to acclimate themselves the this strange Area.  But nothing inside makes sense, no descriptions could possibly have prepared them for what they are about to witness, or how the very landscape will alter their reality.  There is an inverted tower that beckons them to come within, there is an abandoned lighthouse that calls them to explore, there is a marsh that holds creatures that are far too human, and there is a life force in the air they breathe whose presences will have unpredictable consequences.

I’ve read the book and I still couldn’t tell you what it’s really about, and you know, that’s OK.  It might not be for everyone, a story that makes absolutely no sense, and not even the characters know what the hell is going on, all they can share with you are their ridiculous theories.  But I can appreciate a little obscurity in my life, not every novel/film has to spell it out for me, I am allowed to think through the point and come to my own conclusions.  Now, we should look to the author, we should attempt to divine what they intended, but we can lead ourselves, it’s OK to still wonder when you come to the end instead of definitely knowing.  Annihilation is a book that won’t answer your questions, it will only ask more, but it can still be an enjoyable piece of literature.  I was thoroughly entertained by it, even as I stumbled along beside the characters, as I went on a journey with them that made no sense.  It was fascinating, open-ended, scary at times, odd at others, but always engaging, like a sci-fi plot should be.  I only hope that the movie captures the same sentiment, because I know how Hollywood likes to do it, and I don’t have a ton of faith that they won’t screw it up.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Ready Player One

Category : Book Review

Author: Ernest Cline

Year: 2011

Steven Spielberg will make this book into a movie next year, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s not the dystopia, although that has proved to be a genre that audiences just eat up.  And it’s not the writing, more on that later.  It’s the 80s nostalgia, something that Hollywood understands we can’t get enough of right now, as GenXers turning 35 head to the theatre, and can’t stop themselves from watching their childhood favorites redone.  They aren’t always good, but that hardly matters; we want the Ghostbusters to return, we want to see Transformers again, we easily fell in love with Stranger Things, and we’d give our left hand to see 80s goodness brought to our screens like a cornucopia of delights for our senses.  That’s what Ready Player One does on the page, that’s what Spielberg with do in March, and it hardly matters that the source material is 40 years old and the novel that is supposed to make our dreams come true absolutely, shockingly sucks.

In the near future, the world will run out of energy, our population will explode beyond containment, governments will collapse, food will become scarce, but life will still grind on, even if happiness no longer seems an attainable goal.  The only bright spot of this grimy picture is James Halliday and his wondrous creation, OASIS.  It’s a virtual world in which anything is possible, where kids can go to school, where the crafty can make a real buck, where you can live out your wildest fantasy while your actual body stays in the common city slums.  Everyone uses OASIS, and when Halliday dies without an heir, he announces through video that one user will become the owner of the entire company, an overnight billionaire.  But first you have to win the game that he created, a test of sorts with multiple levels, terrible bosses, and puzzles galore.  It’s based on the 80s, Halliday’s favorite era, and you’ll have to know its pop culture history front and back if you’re to have a chance at winning the greatest prize in the universe, and the chance to completely change your life.

We are told the story through the eyes of Wade Watts, a young and penniless gunter, which is an OASIS user who is completely devoted to the 80s and to solving Halliday’s mystery.  Wade lives in Oklahoma City and then in Columbus, OH, but most of the action takes place in OASIS, so we see him through his avatar and we don’t really know the true identities of the people he meets.  First, let me say that the 80s element is fantastic.  References galore, trivia overloads, flashbacks around every corner; it’s pretty magical.  If you like 80s movies, you’re in for a treat, and there is also music, anime, D&D, video games, whatever you liked as a kid you’ll find on these pages.  And the technology that Cline invents is pretty amazing, this entire world where anything is possible, and it’s pretty believable that we could actually get to that point some day.

But, as much as it pains me to say, because I so enjoyed the nostalgia, this book is horrendously written.  It’s like a 12-year-old won a contest with a really good story and for some reason it was published where actual adults could read it and expose it for what it is; amateur.  Cline falls back on every cliche, his dialogue is ridiculous, and I’m not sure there’s an ounce of literary talent on display here.  It’s a major let down, because you want to love the story so much, but remind yourself that it’s not your fault; a writer is supposed to be able to write, and Cline can’t, he can only imagine.  Still, I can’t steer you completely away, there’s too much to enjoy here, and the movie should be fun as well, though I worry it’ll be equally childish.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Les Miserables

Category : Book Review

Author: Victor Hugo

Year: 1862

Perhaps the longest and most difficult read I’ve ever subjected myself to was Moby Dick, a monstrosity of a book that was not worth the time it took to slog through.  The author had talent, obviously, the story had depth, as you can imagine, but filling in the gaps with chapter upon chapter of whaling technique is not my idea of crafting a classic novel.  Les Miserables is similar in that it is extremely long, took me forever to read, and is laden with descriptions that you do not need.  It does differ on one account though; it is amazing.  Les Mis is one of the best books I have ever read, despite its obtuse use of much of its length for pointless purposes.

Jean Valjean, the man, the criminal, the savior, is the lead character in this epic tale, a story that spans decades and illustrates the history of France as a backdrop upon which remarkable citizens’ shadows are cast.  Valjean spent many years in prison for petty thievery, plus time for multiple escape attempts.  When he is finally released, he quickly steals again, but this time a holy man offers to buy his life for God, delivering Valjean from his sinful nature.  This creates a colossal shift in our hero, and as the years pass he devotes himself to the light.  When a young woman under his charge dies, leaving a helpless daughter behind, Valjean abandons all other responsibilities to find the girl and provide her will all she needs, all the while dodging the law that will forever be on his tail, as the country around him burns with poverty and with revolution.

Sometimes ‘classic’ can mean ‘boring’, and in the case of Moby Dick I’d say that’s absolutely right.  But with Les Mis, taking out the unnecessary quarter of the book, action is around every corner, and life-altering choices are made in the blink of an eye.  Those may be my favorite parts; when Valjean takes an entire chapter to make the “right” decision, and then in one sentence does the complete opposite because he can’t help himself.  Hugo wrote these characters to be as human as you can possibly make them without breathing actual life into their two dimensional forms.  He made them lift off the page, delight readers, and inspire us to be better.  Some of the funniest lines I’ve read were written 150 years ago, and translated from French, which is simply amazing, and so unexpected from a book that is so wordy and so dense.  The descriptive parts, when he takes 20 pages to explain Paris sewer systems, those I could do without, but they almost made the rest even better by comparison.  Real wit, incredible philosophy, timeless characters; I have now seen the play, seen the movie, listened to the soundtrack a hundred times, and read the original, unabridged material, never tiring of one of the greatest stories ever told.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – It

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1986

As you may know, Stephen King is my favorite author, and although I know that isn’t an extremely original choice, I’ll defend my love for his books to the last breath.  He’s so much more than a horror writer, his stories have a depth that is quite literally genius.  You can read them for the surface scares, or you can look for the meanings hidden within the characters.  And then you can also, if you read enough, connect the tales to one another until you enter a wonderful, frightening universe that is as magical as it is well-written.  When the movie version of this book was approaching, I knew I had to read it, since it was one of the very few of his that I had never sat down for.  It’s over 1000 pages, perhaps that’s why I shied away, but it’s also not that great, which is a good reason for you to do the same.

Derry, Maine, a town with more deaths than average and a spooky way of immediately forgetting those who die.  Every 27 years, give or take, an evil rises from the underground water systems to kill children and eat their bodies, minds, souls, and fears.  This power, It, feeds for a year, and then disappears back underground, only to repeat the cycle.  Adults don’t notice It, they forget the carnage, but kids can feel the darkness, and they know their town isn’t safe.  A group of seven children, the Losers Club, are determined to destroy It, who takes the form of a clown but who can also change to be whatever you are afraid of.  In a parallel story, the seven, who are now grown, begin to understand that they didn’t finish the job the first time, that they’ll have to go back to Derry together to rid the world of this sickness once and for all.

So much to discuss, so few ways to make it clear without putting the book in your hands and talking to you some months later.  It’s both actually long and feels very long, it took me a while to get through.  One reason is that nothing happens.  With the two stories occurring at the same time, it’s 800 pages in before the kids start understanding what to do and the adults start getting ready to repeat what they tried 27 years ago.  There’s much too much character development, which sounds like a stupid critique, but we don’t need chapters of every person’s exploits, both when they were young and when they’re grown, over and over and over, especially when none of them are really that exciting.  King goes long-winded, which is not like him, and it doesn’t work, as is does so well in The Stand.

The book does draw heavily from metaphors and allusions, which is great, letting the reader figure out for themselves what It is, what Derry represents, what each child fears, how adulthood and childhood are compared and contrasted.  It’s a well-written book, I won’t tell you it’s not, but it’s just not one that is worth the extreme effort.  I have to mention one more thing, which is the under-aged group sex scene.  It’s at the end, and I can understand why; I think some people would have put the book down were it to happen at the beginning.  It’s inappropriate, I don’t know why it’s a part of the story, six 11-year-olds having sex with one girl in the sewers can’t possibly be the only way to make whatever point King was trying to make, and I’m glad they decided to settle for a kiss in the movie.  The film takes the horror elements and leaves behind the deeper themes, so pick up the book if you’re curious, just know it isn’t King’s best work.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆