Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 3)

Reviews of books I’ve read

Book Review: Jane Eyre, a dude’s look

In keeping with the situation of branching out and reading classics and stereotypical chick lit (I hate the term BTW), I set out to read Jane Eyre.

Short preface: My better half has a beautifully bound pocket sized hardcover copy she reads at least once a year. The title is worn off the spine and the cover is showing some experience to be sure. She also didn’t think I would read it, or finish it, or enjoy it. But leave it to a dude to set out to prove a woman wrong! And wrong I proved. Mostly because she really got excited about me reading it, which got me excited. When we got home in the evening and settled down, she’d ask how far I was and we’d talk about literature. TRUE LOVE.

As for the story, much of the first 100 pages or so I was feeling a little ripped off that the language didn’t sound as elegant? old? as Pride and Prejudice. I felt like I was reading a more contemporary novel. People have told me it IS more contemporary. But 30 years, hardly places it at the edge of a new age of literature.

But I moved on quickly from this feeling as the language was far more heart tugging and vivid and poetic than P & P. I know, comparing it to P & P probably isn’t the best idea, but it’s all I’ve got.

And Bronte seemed to be willing to “go there” where I didn’t think a book by a woman of that era would. Angry children, ghosts, hallucinations?, disturbing deaths that are far more gruesome than I was expecting, sexual overtones and sexual promiscuity, insane wife (also a hallucination?)? All with the descriptive insight that would make any poet turn green with envy.

I don’t need to give a real review. Jane Eyre has been read a billion times by billions of people and reviewed a hundred times over. But I did want to mention something I learned while discussing Eyre with my better half.

(Mild spoilers below…so if you haven’t read it yet, you’ve been warned)

I called Eyre a crazy person with serious depression issues and likely hallucinations. Melanie asked what made me think this first part (about her being crazy and depressed). I explained my reasoning was because when Eyre learned of Rochester’s intent to marry a beautiful woman, Ingram, rather than pining over Rochester and drawing pictures of what she can never have (again, Rochester), she drew pictures of the woman he was courting. Pictures that probably took Eyre hours and hours to draw! On details given to her by 3rd parties since she had never met Ingram!!!!

What sort of psycho does that?!?

Then Melanie explained to me something that hurt me deep inside. She said that that is what most women did. Sure, they dream and pine for the idle that is their heart’s desire. But moreover, they latch onto what it is that desired person wants in a woman. They measure themselves against the women they are competing against! This is what women tend to fixate on! He likes blondes, I’m not a blonde. He likes skinny girls with pouty lips, I’m not as skinny as her and my lips do this weird smile thing.

This still rattles me to my core. It pains me that so many women struggle with this every single day. It’s like having severe depression with anxiety issues but with a socially acceptable nod from the universe.

I recently mentioned something about this concern of mine to friends. Many said it was human nature that woman want to be more attractive and men seek that out like moths to light and that it’s NOT some socially constructed media blitz or some situation that men put on women. I still can’t buy this argument. I’ll concede some nature involvement. But I think there’s something more going on, and I don’t like, and I don’t know how to stop it, or what to do, so…It just keeps happening. And nobody cares.

Which I suppose is not terribly unfitting since the novel itself does not have a truly happy ending.

Book Review: Knife of Never Letting Go

Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series starts with this piece of brilliance.

Knife of Never Letting Go shows what breaking the rules can do for your story. The book also proves that YA really can be a solid genre that, like Romance, deserves more credit than it’s given.

It’s part science fiction, part fantasy, part dystopian YA. And ALL beautifully executed.

The Good: I’ve put off writing this review for months because I have nothing negative to say.

Pacing: In true YA fashion, it’s very fast paced. The story line keeps you riveted. Things are revealed so often and so quickly and IN YOU FACE, you struggle to even put it down. And at nearly 500 pages, you have to put it down at some point.

Concept: The Noise is a fun, unique concept that I can’t help think it’s a play on Social Media and the overabundance of ‘noise’ and information that we’re bombarded with every day.

Narration: Not only is narration from a poorly educated young man which leads to constant misspelling of words (which you adjust to quickly), but the narration, you quickly realize is ACTUALLY what the character is thinking at the MOMENT he’s thinking it. Several secondary characters even bring it up. That’s so brilliant! It’s actually the character telling you the story as he’s telling himself what’s going on and what he’s thinking. It’s a stream of consciousness style without the painful inability to keep up with the author or the story.

YA Gold: The coming of age story is so poignant, so spot on, so everything. There is so much to learn for young readers in terms of what makes a person an adult, what makes you honorable, choices, life, love, hate, death, trust, etc. And none of it’s thrown in your face as it can sometimes be.

And for the YA critics who hate sex and gratuitous vulgarity in their YA. You’re OK here. Granted, there are a few swear words, but they are tasteful and very appropriate (Nothing like Grasshopper Jungle or Winger). And the sex is so nonexistent. Though, be prepared, the violence is extreme.

The Bad: And this isn’t bad by any means in terms of writing. But it’s a warning to the reader who might decide to now read this book.

  1. Be prepared for a very sad middle. I’m not going to spoil it, but trust me. Ness has even said that he STILL gets LOTS of negative reactions over this one important character’s…inevitable…situation.
  2. Have the next book (The Ask and the Answer) ready and in your hands. Knife of Never Letting Go ends on such a cliffhanger that you’ll go batty until you get Book 2.

Conclusion: There are 2 YA series I keep coming back to as probably the most perfectly executed groups of novels devised thus far. Chaos Walking series is one of those 2 series!

I tend to enjoy stories heavy in political/social commentary and this series STILL makes the cut as one of the best even though it’s not heavy handed in this respect. Other than the …inevitable…situation of one of the characters, I can’t image a single reader walking away disappointed with this book. There’s so much to learn, to enjoy, to imagine, to engross yourself in.

 

Book Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle was an amazing book by Andrew Smith. It came recommended to me by a bunch of YA readers. I loved it. So, naturally, I found another book by Smith, Winger.

Smith does something few parents will like. He tells it like it is without ANY filters. And when i say ANY filters, I mean it. If it’s a curse word and a 14 year old boy would use it, it’s there. If a 14 year old boy would think it, it’s there. Which, in Grasshopper Jungle, I struggled with it. I tend to NOT read crass stories because most read like they are using coarse language for the readers, not for the story. Smith skirts that line better than anyone.

One last comment about Smith’s style. Reading his stories, especially Grasshopper Jungle, but also Winger, it reads as if Kurt Vonnegut rose from the dead and started writing Young Adult. The pithy commentary, the crass language dropped for artistic measure but still means something, sharp and dark humor, is all very Vonnegut. Something I haven’t found on this level in YA or in anything.

The good: Winger is like Looking for Alaska without spending half the book crying.

My assumption is that most of Smith’s readers will be boys. And that’s OK. Winger reads much more like a boy’s story than one for a more neutral audience. Does that mean girls will not get anything from it? Of course not. If teen girls want to learn about the male psyche, the boy meets adulthood struggles, then there’s plenty to learn. And, of course, without spoiling the end, the end has a lesson for everyone.

Smith appears to have a rather prominent gay character in most of his stories. The best part about this is, that’s not what those characters are. They are just teens struggling with life and love and growing up…with a side of gay for good measure. The best kind. They are real. They are genuine. And they’re not there to BE gay.

The only person that makes a big deal about the character’s sexual orientation are the main characters when they continue to wonder about homosexuality the same way they wonder about why parents work for jobs they hate or wonder why the sky is blue. Also, the main character, in this case Winger, constantly struggles with his straightness, the testosterone ‘Queers are stupid’ mentality in American high school sports and schools as a whole, and the ‘how can I be friends with a gay guy but not be gay…am I gay?’. You know, the questions every boy asks himself (mostly because all he thinks about is sex) and probably girls too since I assume girls go through at least SOME sort of ‘sex is the cool new thing to think about’ phase at some point in their lives.

The not so good:¬†Winger’s story did 2 things I just couldn’t get past.

1. The main character is a complete ass to most people around him. He cheats on his mostly-girlfriend, screws over half his teammates, fights with them after he screws them over, gets wasted drunk twice, and the only consequence he sees is feeling stupid. He’s a middle class jerk with no consequences for his actions. Yes, most boys do stupid things. That’s part of learning. But when we read stories of these antics, I expect true consequences. His constant high-fiving jock attitude for all his antics and getting away with them didn’t help me like Winger any better.

2. The ending (And I’m going to try to do this without giving anything away). Not so much that it ended the way it did or that the lesson wasn’t perfect. It was. And it ended mostly the way it should. It’s that it happened so damn fast. Part of me understands. Winger is a jock boy at heart so the tough subjects are tough to talk about. But that doesn’t mean you can just wait until the last few pages to swing the door open, let the bulls come charging in, give your moral of the story, and drop the mic. There was zero building to the climax. This is where Looking for Alaska and Winger differ…and disappointingly.

Conclusion: Winger is a great book for boys who don’t usually read. Actually, so is Grasshopper Jungle. Andrew Smith is like if Vonnegut and Chuck Palenchuk (Fight Club?) were one person. It’s about the in your face writing with a touch of dark pithy social commentary. Still, for the readers Smith is going for, I think he hits a home run here.

Book Review: Unwholly by Neal Shusterman

Unwholly, book 2 of the YA dystology by Neal Shusterman, continues an impressive weaving of storylines that is rare in any text.

As a writer and critical reader, I confess myself conflicted with my overall rating of Book 2. The complaints I had in book 1, which really was just one complaint, is taken to another level in Unwholly.

The chapters are divided (on purpose) into point of views of dozens of characters. But more often than in Unwind, there’s instances of omniscient POV where we shift character POV without shifting chapters, and many instances of straight up info that ONLY the narrator would know. Once I shrugged off the negative feelings toward omniscient POV, the book is fantastic. I don’t mind omniscient POV, but if you’re going to separate chapters by POV, why take the cheap way out and also go omniscient?

The good: Pretty much everything else.

Unwholly does the same thing as Unwind. Shusterman weaves amazing and complicated storylines together while keeping the pacing fast and doing what only YA does well…bring sociopolitical issues to the forefront simply and effectively. Shusterman makes you think. And I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that not only are the old philosophical questions present from Unwind, there’s the added bonus of “What is life?” “When does it begin?” “Is there a black and white version of right and wrong like we think?”

The Unwind series should be required reading in every school.

It makes the reader think about things that only literary fiction tends to hit. Questions not only of the beginning or end of life, identity, but also broader questions of what to do when compromise doesn’t seem to be an option? Do you force compromise? What happens when “black and white” isn’t so black and white? These are not simple philosophical questions for anyone. But they are important questions for everyone. Especially in a culture where we seem to reward LACK of compromise and reward vulgar and extreme sides of coins that don’t have to be sides of coins.

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A debut traditional science fiction novel by John Scalzi was also a runner up for the Hugo Award. Pretty big accomplishment for a first novel. Gotta say, I went into this read with reservations. I’m not much for traditional science fiction / fantasy novels. They are usually less than perfectly written and focus on the insanely ludicrous worlds that can never happen or will never happen. That all takes me out of the story. Where most think “Yay! I get to forget about the world and immerse myself in this fantasy!” I can’t help but think, “Where’s the reality?”

Old Man’s War defied my expectations.

Sure, it’s traditional science fiction epic with humans colonizing the universe and I think 5 different alien races. But it starts with a solid “What If” and slowly takes you into the absurd that allows me to shrug and admit defeat into the world of the fantastic.

The “What If”? What if humans had the option not to die of old age? Well, this option comes with one major setback. One most are OK with accepting, until after they find out the truth. But by then, they’ve already signed their life away…literally.

The story looks at social issues such as colonization (which still exists), race, what makes one human, ethics, military ethics, and so on. Which are all huge pluses for me.

The writing was quite engaging. Although I do have two glaring complaints.

First, info dumps. I know it’s necessary in world building, which is probably another reason I don’t like sci-fi/fantasy. But all info dumping was done through the use of stupid and ignorant characters. This made it a LITTLE more tolerable. However, after a while I stopped buying the ignorance.

Second, the sad attempts at comedy. There were countless times when the characters were trying to be funny or the narrator was trying to be funny. And sure, the narrator is a 76 year old man, so his humor is a little off. But that’s the joy of novels, if we should suspend belief with aliens, beanstalks, colonizing the galaxy, there’s no reason to up the humor into funny territory rather than eye-rolling territory.

All in all, I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed. So much so that it will not surprise me if I end up continuing reading this series. The writing was strong, the concepts were not super inventive but not so over the top as to be silly, the social and political ideas are great, and the pacing was on point for the new style. I don’t think a Sci-fi reader would be disappointed, and I don’t think the average reader would be either.

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I love reading well written books. Stories can come to life that I would otherwise not be interested in if the writing is so brilliant and so envy-building. That’s why I tend to gravitate toward Nobel Prize winners in literature, YA that has won multiple respected awards, and Pulitzer Prize winning novels. So, of course, Kavalier and Clay ended up on my bookshelf.

And this particular book came with multiple recommendations from people who I respect in terms of their reading recommendations.

But I didn’t really feel this one. And I’m disappointed in myself for saying this.

The metaphors were brilliant and pretty much the thing that kept me reading. They were so frequent, so vivid, so earth-shattering, that I read just for these.

But Chabon does something I thought I had no issue with: third person omniscient point of view. I enjoy the omniscient narrator of Saramago but Chabon seemed to do it sparingly and almost cheaply or weakly. And maybe THAT’S what people don’t like about omniscient POV.

Also, I’ve never been too interested in drawing, comics, comic books, WWII, or historical fiction. Perhaps that alone set me up to be disappointed with this story. But I refuse to be swayed by the “I don’t like the idea of the story, so the book sucks” line of thinking.

The biggest disappointment for me was that, at no point while reading it, I never once put the book down and kept thinking about it or about some topic that it mentioned. My favorite books are the ones that linger like garlic on your breath or a corpse in a room. You can never really get rid of the smell. The books that even after you put them down can’t exit your brain or your life or your being, THOSE are the ones I seek.

I think Kavalier and Clay was a perfectly executed text and story with no depth of social/political realization for the reader. Sure, we learn about Jewish life, WWII, and history of the comic book machine and it’s beginnings. But the “takeaway” seems to be missing. And THAT is what I think kept me from enjoying it.

Book Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Yancey is in line with some of the better YA dystopian trilogies.

The pace keeps you interested, the plot and the characters keep you engaged.

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The 5th wave

For a YA novel, it gets kind of wordy. Many times during the middle of the book I kept wondering if I was reading YA or if I was reading something from a MFA grad who wanted to look smart. I say this lightheartedly as overall I enjoyed the book. But I did wonder if he couldn’t have shrunk it down a bit. And I don’t usually say that.

The concept of the Other is a personal favorite of mine. Yancey plays with the alien invasion theme in a way that is very Matheson-esque. The reimagined alien theme works brilliantly. And the best part is, he doesn’t give you big scary aliens to make the read worth trudging through, nor does he suggest that people were being saved by the aliens or that the aliens wanted to enslave humans…Actually he makes it a clear point to mention throughout the book that these aliens are so NOT what anyone ever imaged them to be.

That said, he does have a point to make. And the point is drilled home before you even read the opening line. There’s a quote about what Europeans did to indigenous peoples in the Americas. For those of you rolling your eyes, stop it. He doesn’t beat you over the head with the whole “look what we did to the Indians” though I kind of wish he would have. The average reader will miss this point completely. The point of the story was to point out that humans are dicks and just because you won and just because you were a conscientious objector doesn’t mean you get a free pass. You still killed 7 billion humans.

The other concern I have is that…bit of a spoiler here so stop reading if you don’t want to know…the way the female protagonist saves humanity? “Love”

Seriously? You give me a great, strong, female protagonist that isn’t as dimwitted as Katniss and THAT’S your conclusion? The only possibility in a Girl = Savior is “Love conquers?”

That ONE line nearly ripped me out of the book and made me throw it.

OK. I’m done. Negative gone. In all, it’s a great read. It’s inventive (which is so rare, even in this dystopia genre that claims to always be inventing things…it doesn’t). It skirts really good social ideas that the U.S. seems unwilling to consider. And the main character, Cassie, is strong, active, not needing of a man to love or save her. Though there is some of that…she doesn’t NEED it. It’s just human nature, and it’s played that way here too.

Pride and Prejudice: A Dude’s Book Review

That’s right. Lets go there.

If you’re like me, you’ve walked in on your girl friend or wife watching Pride and Prejudice. And if you’re still like me, you turned and walked right back from which you came when you realized it was on. You can tell it’s P & P from the squealing and/or the tissues strewn about. If there’s a gaggle of women, they’re likely holding hands and drinking wine. RUN WHILE YOU STILL HAVE YOUR SANITY! That or they’re watching Love Actually. But my better half reads the book constantly enough to quote the poor bugger. Since it’s a classic, and it was sitting around the house, and I’d run out of every other book in the¬†universe to read, I picked it up.

If you’re a dude and reading this: stick with me. If you’re a chick: turn your head as if this is the um-teeth time your boy is watching Star Wars.

Truth be told, I started with irritation. Long sentences. Language that I could hardly keep up with. Words I had to look up like “countenence.” But I pushed through. Then, about 1/3 the way through, I started to change my mind. Here’s why.

First, it starts to make sense.

Second, the snarky bits. The main character, Elizabeth Bennett, is a snarky little prejudiced person. She shoots down everyone for being they stupid people they are. What’s better, her father, Mr. Bennett does the same and actually invites particular men over to the house to listen to their idiocy.

Third, the pride. Not the pride that Mr. Darcy has, though he’s a jerk for most of the book. I’m talking the pride that comes from having read and SAYING you’ve read this “chick book.”

Forth, brownie points. That’s right. You start rattling off quotes from Pride and Prejudice and women will swoon. Use those quotes correctly and go home with the prom queen.

Fifth, it’s just well written. Yup. You learn a lot about the time period, the social etiquette, the way the social system worked to completely screw women over from start to finish. Really! The whole reason for the story is that if Mr. Bennett (daddy) dies, the farm doesn’t go to the wife, the daughters, oh no! It goes to Mr. Bennett’s nephew! (Nephew right? Too damn many people ..it’s like reading a Russian novel). So, Mrs. Bennett is racing to get her daughters married before her husband kicks it (a WONDER why he was a grumpy dick).

Also, as all this is happening, the girls are tossed around all Hot Potato like as they play show dog to find a rich hubby. Welcome to slavery for white people. And, when a guy and girl run off together, it’s the girl who’s seen as a harpy. The guy gets money and a young wife out of the deal. Even the jerks get a winning hand as long as they have a penis.

CONCLUSION: Just do it! Read the thing. It’s worth it on a number of levels. Most of which are self-satisfying. Some are external.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki: A book review

My readers and friends know I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is no exception.

This is Murakami’s second excursion (I think) into third person narrative (after “1Q84”). And I think he nails it again. As with “1Q84” breaking my psyche when I look into the sky and see only 1 moon peering back at me, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (CTT) does similarly but differently.

Unlike his other work, CTT doesn’t include fantastical creatures that usually accompanies Murakami’s Magical Realism story lines. But, that’s not to say he doesn’t pull you into something deeply personal but manages to make it beautifully universal.

Like all Murakami’s stories, it’s tough to explain the plot without either giving the whole book away or sounding like a complete nut job with a hangover. But I think I can say without giving it away that CTT follows a middle aged man (as with most of Murakami’s stories) who believes himself to be one of the most worthless bag of bones around. Not in a “I hate myself” sort of way. Instead he does it in much more of a “I’m so average, so disappear-able, that I stand out about as much as a strand of hair on barber’s floor after a long day” sort of thing.

It’s a relatively short read compared to 1Q84 or Windup Bird Chronicle. Yet it drags you in immediately and I think the reasons are because of how he manipulates the reader. Which brings me to the most important part of reading CTT for me: the Murakami Code.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been trying to crack the Murakami Code since I read Windup Bird Chronicle. The Murakami Code is a made up concept I came up with to describe the unknown writing methods Murakami uses to yank the reader in and toy with their mind in a way that I’ve never had another author do. And for 5 years, I struggled to find the answers to the Murakami Code. Reading this book, I think I’ve found it.

To breed anticipation, I’m holding back on telling you the secrets of the Murakami Code until a later post, a post on writing tips by way of the Murakami Code.

Back to CTT.

CTT keeps you reading. Not with action. Not with anticipation. Not with fancy words or colorful phrases…see what I did there? But with pure literary pull and with visceral need to learn about yourself and about Tsukuru Tazaki as he learns about himself through his, well, pilgrimage.

Murakami is one of the few authors I push on every reader and writer I come across. He’s also the one author I’ve found that people either adore for his Kafka-esque literary abilities. Or hate him for his drab, boring depictions of everyday life. For instance, Windup Bird Chronicle opens with the main character making pasta…that’s it. Just making pasta. But it makes you keep turning the page. Because a good writer can interest you in the most mundane.

When Murakami gets his Nobel Prize in Literature (and he will eventually), I will be proud to say, in true hipster style, I knew of his writing before he reached that pinnacle.

Book Review: Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

Every once in a while I come across a book that screws with my brain. Bukowski’s Ham on Rye did that to me.

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Ham on Rye by Bukowski

A friend let me borrow a copy of Ham on Rye on the assumption that because I myself am quite the cynic I would fall in love with Bukowski as he has the same dark, twisted view on life. I had to stop reading Ham on Rye for a while about 50 pages in because he’s so brutally honest about the “working class” and crappy family life that it tended to hit a little too close to home. But jumping back into it recently I pushed through to the end to come to 2 very important realizations.

1. Bukowski skirts a line between too crass and too simplistic as to almost be a terrible writer and a terrible story. Notice I said almost. Reading him was like eating great green chile. The first bite you love because the taste is heavenly and one of a kind. The second bite you’re hating life because of the pain and spice. It goes back and forth like that the entire experience. Same goes for Bukowski. Every so often, he’d say something so poignant that I fell in love with him. Other times his writing felt SO simplistic it was as if a 12 year old was writing it.

Where do you draw the line between simplicity and crap writing? Don’t know. But it’s probably right around Bukowski. I tend to side with his philosophy. If you’re writing flowery words just to show what you can create with pretty phrases and million dollar grad school vocabulary, I see through your Bull, roll my eyes, and walk away. Too many writers do this. They think because they are artists they have to prove their intelligence and their mastery of the craft by building a soulless world with fancy words by no plot. To hell with that.

2. The second realization has less to do with Bukowski directly and more to do with learning about myself…which is why we read, right?

As mentioned, I read Ham on Rye because a friend loves him and thinks my dark humor follows Bukowski’s own dark humor. Which, she was mostly right about that. I’m a cynic who has no problem being a jerk to you if you’re a jerk. And I usually sugar coat it so most think I’m being funny.

That said, I’m not like Bukowski. Not anymore.

Bukowski believes that the world is crap (at least for the poor majority of humans). Everything is crap. It will only be crap. People are crap. Life is crap. Hell, crap is crap. The only thing to look forward to is death, after which you cease to exist. That is the only joy for those born outside of the 1%.

This used to be me. I used to feel this way. I used to have this terrible view of the world. And though I do think most people are A-holes and that being at the bottom of the pig pile is awful and cruel, I can’t let myself believe that life only has crap to offer.

I’ve seen true beauty in the world. It’s called the Southwest. I’ve seen amazing things from the most impoverished. I’ve seen the rare wealthy person act with true compassion.

When I thought like Bukowski I was miserable! Now, though I act cynically and my humor is dark, it’s just a holdover from my terrible, no good, very bad days.

Do I recommend Bukowski? Sure, if you’re interested in hating yourself and the life around you. Don’t get me wrong. His writing is brilliant. But, like Sylvia Plath, his writing can also make you want to stick your head in an oven and wait it out.

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