Apr 292018
 

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a brilliant novel that employs devices of magical realism to chart one woman’s treacherous odyssey as an escaped slave from antebellum Georgia. Cora’s journey (facilitated by a literal underground railroad) is an exploration of American white supremacy in all of its forms, from paternalistic condescension to systematic genocide. Through Cora, we witness how the institution of slavery poisons everything that it touches, including the ideals on which the nation was founded. The book also challenges the reader to ask whether anyone can ever truly escape slavery.

This is not a comforting book, but it makes for compulsive reading. I tore through most of it in a weekend. I’ll be sure to add Whitehead’s other books to my ever-growing “to read” pile.

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Apr 092018
 

Red Sparrow (Red Sparrow Trilogy #1)Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book taught me that a spy’s life consists mostly of:
– traipsing around foreign cities at all hours of the night;
– eating;
– having amazing sex; and
– more eating.

Kidding aside, this is an entertaining and well-crafted spy novel. Dominika Egorova, a Russian intelligence agent who is also also a synesthete (look it up), is a fascinating character and I enjoyed the opportunity to get inside her head. The plot is satisfyingly twisty and the author’s background as a CIA station chief gives an air of authenticity to the tradecraft described in the book, but the sex scenes are straight out of the Middle-Aged White Guy’s Fantasy Generator.

The recipes at the end of each chapter are also a nice touch. I really want to try that caviar torte. Looking forward to eventually finishing the trilogy and checking out the film adaptation.

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Feb 252018
 

The Magician King (The Magicians, #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second installment in the Magicians trilogy is a weightier affair than the first book, focusing on themes of loss, mental illness, and the mysterious underpinnings of magic. The book spends a lot of time with Julia, a minor character from the first novel who was denied entry to the school for magicians that became home for Quentin and the other main characters. We witness her growing obsession to learn magic by more nontraditional means, as well as the toll it exacts on her mental health.

The book alternates between Julia’s story and a more traditional quest-y storyline that you would find in most fantasy novels. The quest seems a bit undercooked, but Grossman’s portrayal of Julia is both beautiful and heartbreaking for reasons that become clear in the final pages. The prose can be clever bordering on smug; Grossman wants the reader to know that he is deconstructing the ponderous formalism of the genre and much of his writing is quite funny, but it eventually feels like he’s showing off.

I’m tempted to begin the third installment immediately, but I think I’ll let this story sit with me for a while before returning to Fillory. In the meantime, I should really check out the Syfy series based on the books.

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Jun 212015
 

Fourth of July Creek is full of broken people struggling with their past and present troubles in the rural Montana of the early 1980s. Pete Snow is a social worker who does his best to make life a little better for local families coping–barely–with poverty, addiction, and mental illness. Pete also has his own problems, including alcoholism, a broken marriage, and a teenage daughter who both loves and resents him.

In the course of his work, Pete meets Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin. They live deep in the woods, where the elder Pearl educates his son in the ways of apocalyptic Christianity, elaborate government conspiracies, and white supremacy. Pete’s first impulse is to help them with offers of food and clothing, but he becomes fascinated with Jeremiah and tries to understand how this man descended into paranoia and fanaticism.

The book is at its best when it slowly reveals Pearl’s tragic history. Henderson skillfully manages the tricky task of eliciting sympathy for Pearl despite his cracked worldview. But the novel stumbles in its portrayal of women. Every female character of note is a mess of one flavor or another. I began to wonder if any well-adjusted women even existed in this fictional corner of Montana. I’m sure that Montana, even now, isn’t a bastion of feminist enlightenment, but I really hope it’s not quite so bleak as portrayed in the book.

Henderson is a talented writer and I look forward to his next work, but I hope he can tell a story that portrays women as something other than punching bags and sexual outlets for disaffected men.

Apr 142014
 

I was a bit surprised to learn that Amazon has purchased digital comics purveyor Comixology. I now purchase most of my comics via Comixology and I hope this takeover leads to some much-needed improvements for the site, such as a more refined search function and a more intuitive way to organize the comics I have already purchased. Amazon has a reputation for not mucking up the companies it purchases (see Audible and Zappos), which could be good news for Comixology and its customers.

I’d like to see more competitors enter the market, but few companies will be eager to contend with a behemoth like Amazon. Publisher Dark Horse has its own digital storefront, but it’s a bit of a mess and I think I would prefer that they simply make their titles available through Comixology.

Dec 312013
 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette was the best book I read this year. I can’t remember the last novel that elicited so much laughter from me; a remarkable accomplishment considering its dearth of sympathetic characters. This story of an affluent Seattle family who comes undone pokes fun at a rich array of upper-middle-class foibles, but it never crosses the line into pure satire. Even though we may not like the people we meet in the book, author Maria Semple makes us care about what happens to them.

And the runners-up: Stephen King’s Joyland and Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. Joyland is a bittersweet ghost story that shows King writes best when he writes short. The Shining Girls is a time-travel story crossbred with a serial killer thriller and the result is pure narrative adrenaline.

Nov 252013
 

For most people, climate change remains an abstraction that is dwarfed by more pressing daily concerns. And even when we are confronted with glaring evidence of a drastically altered environment, we may not be able truly grasp the cataclysm it represents. That’s what happens to Dellarobia Turnbow in the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Flight Behavior. Dellarobia is walking through the Tennessee woods near her home, on her way to making a rather poor life choice, when she stumbles upon a strange and breathtaking sight: millions of monarch butterflies in the trees and sky above. She turns back home, transformed in ways that she can’t explain.

Dellarobia is a smart woman who hasn’t been able to escape the crushing poverty that envelops her small Appalachian town. She married too young to Cub, a sweet man without a curious bone in his body. They have two children together, the only bright spot in Dellarobia’s otherwise bleak life. When news of her butterfly discovery spreads around town, Dellarobia becomes a minor celebrity. Some of the people at her church view the monarchs’ sudden appearance as a divine sign and Dellarobia as a prophet. But then she meets Ovid Byron, a professor and biologist who has come to study the butterflies. Byron helps Dellarobia understand that these insects do not belong in Tennessee and that their displacement is the likely the result of climate change. Byron hires her as a lab assistant and she begins to imagine other possibilities for her life.

Kingsolver belongs to a small group of literary writers who can weave science into their stories without resorting to eye-crossing blocks of expository text. Flight Behavior is a book about systems, both natural and social, and how those systems can collapse under duress. But this isn’t an entirely bleak novel. Dellarobia is a funny and quick-witted woman and by the end of the book I was a bit in love with her. I wanted better things for her. Whether both the monarchs and Dellarobia will endure is left open to interpretation.

Sep 172013
 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a comic novel skewering the modern American version of affluence and, for good measure, the tech industry, self-help culture, and the good people of Seattle. Through a series of e-mails, notes, and letters, we meet Bernadette, her husband Elgin, and their daughter Bee. Elgin is a rock star at Microsoft whose workaholic tendencies keep are slowly estranging him from his family. Bernadette is a brilliant former architect who suddenly abandoned her career and is now struggling with depression and agoraphobia. She hires a personal assistant based in India to handle the most basic household tasks and does her best to avoid interacting with anyone but her family.

Bernadette eventually disappears for reasons that aren’t clear until later in the book. Bee is the narrative voice tying together the disparate elements of the narrative and it’s impossible not to like her. She’s a precocious teen with a biting sense of humor and a generous spirit. The book is her attempt to piece together the circumstances that led to her mother’s disappearance. Author Maria Semple weaves together plot and characterization to create a deeply funny book populated with deeply flawed people. The relationship between Bernadette and Bee is beautifully revealed through the inner voices of the two characters and it elevates the book above satire to something much more nuanced.

This is probably one of the few literary novels that gives the reader with a solid introduction to Antarctica and its flora and fauna.

Sep 032013
 

I’m saddened by the news of Frederik Pohl’s passing over the weekend. Pohl was one of the great science fiction writers of the twentieth century; he brought a wry sense of pathos to his stories that stood in opposition to the more aloof sensibilities of Asimov and Clarke. His 1977 book Gateway is one of my favorites and I often recommend it to younger readers who are curious about science fiction but aren’t sure where to begin. It’s a fun adventure story with surprising intellectual and emotional heft. In his later years, Pohl also maintained a charming and insightful blog.

Farewell, Mr. Pohl. Perhaps I’ll see you beyond the blue event horizon.

Jul 292013
 

Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is a thrilling summer read that mashes up several genres into a propulsive narrative that never flags or becomes too enamored with itself. The story is a twist on the standard serial killer plot. We meet Harper, a sociopathic loner living in Depression-era Chicago who stumbles across a mysterious house that has doors into the city spanning the twentieth century. For reasons never fully explained, the house uses Harper as its instrument to kill several young women across time. We also meet Kirby, a college-age woman in early-90s Chicago who is the only person to survive one of Harper’s attacks. She is obsessed with finding her assailant and, thanks to an internship at the Sun-Times, begins piecing together the strange connections that link her with the other victims.

The plot may seem outlandish, but Beukes grounds it with rich characterizations. The inner dialogues of her characters are some of the best writing I’ve seen in recent years. Her meticulous research also pays off in vivid depictions of Chicago across the years. The ending left me a bit frustrated because I wanted more of an explanation for the book’s terrible events. But by not giving the reader a pat conclusion, the book leaves a more lasting impression.