Friday, July 30, 2010

The Season of Risks (Ethical Vampire #3) by Susan Hubbard

Rating 4/5

Facebook is run by vampires!

I really like this series. It's written in a more lyrical way than most in the genres (urban fantasy, young adult). I listened to the first two books of the series on audiobook, which was a fantastic treat. I don't normally like audiobooks, but the narrator was amazing, and Hubbard's sensually descriptive style suits the format. So I was slightly hesitant to read this one on paper, afraid my enjoyment would change. The experience was different, but no less rewarding.

Although there were a few things in this book that struck me as inexplicably absurd, I was willing to overlook them. Hubbard creates a misty sense of mystery with her writing that is compelling and addictive. I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes the genre.

See my review of The Society of S (Ethical Vampire #1) by Susan Hubbard

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost

Rating 4/5

Fascinating. I read this book in one sitting, which surprised me, since I usually have to take breaks from non-fiction books. I saw myself in some of the rationalizations people use to hoard, but fortunately I've been able to let go of things over my life. It helps that I'm a buddhist. I still hoard craft supplies - my tiny apartment would be much more livable if it weren't for the stacks of beads, yarn and fabric. But I still have less "stuff" than anyone I know. I especially identified with the problems with potential and opportunity that hoarders find in any object. I think it's the reason why I have shelves of books I haven't read and get anxious when I think about committing beads to a specific project - once they've been used, they lose their potential for everything else. Anyway, I thought this book was great!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating 4/5

This is a book about painting, and painters, and it needs - and deserves - a painter's patience to read. I don't know how many times I found myself having read two or three long paragraphs and then realizing my mind had wandered and I hadn't absorbed anything I'd just read. It was always necessary to go back and re-read what I'd missed, so I could follow along with what was happening next. This is to say, it's a long-winded and exquisitely described narrative, but I don't think it could've been done any other way.

The man the story revolves around, Robert Oliver, is a painter who winds up in a psychiatric facility after attempting to attack a painting at a museum. For some strange reason, his diagnosis (obviously bipolar disorder) is never explicitly mentioned - it seems like Kostova has purposefully avoided it even in places where it would've been natural to say the words. The only reason I can think of for this is that she believes "bipolar disorder" might bring up some false or misleading impression/stigma/prejudice by the reader against her character.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and each has been written well. Oliver is haunted by a woman he saw in a painting, but it is Oliver himself who haunts the pages of this book, despite the fact that he speaks perhaps four sentences in his own voice throughout. The rest of his character is depicted by those who knew him. He has a profound effect on these people, and on the reader.

This is a long, but ultimately satisfying novel, inspired by art and written in a way that mimics an epic painting. The descriptions of people and places and things are delicate and thorough, which sometimes becomes tiresome. Reading this book with patience is like studying each brush stroke of a masterpiece. Some people aren't into that, and some people (like me) can get into it after they realize the rewards.

I found this book to be less compelling than Kostova's first novel, The Historian, but still a very worthwhile read.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern

Rating 2/5

I had to stop reading this book half-way through and take a break for a few days because I was having a very visceral reaction to it. It wasn't the subject matter so much as the way it was written. Firstly, the prose was jolting - so many short sentences - and made me feel almost sea-sick. Secondly, Stern talks a lot about her disassociative states, and it seems to me the whole book had a disassociated feel about it. She names emotions but you don't get the sense she identifies with them or is unable to really explain or understand them. Obviously, that is not her fault, it is a result of her trauma. It just makes it hard for the reader to fully engage with her, since she's not fully engaged with herself.

Stern shifts back and forth between her life, her rape investigation, PTSD theory, and terrorism. These subjects are indeed related, but somehow she fails to articulate the connections in a way that satisfies me. And the switching between these ideas and the way that she approaches them - sometimes intensely personal, sometimes academic - is also jarring and interrupts flow and interest.

It also seems to me that her father's concerns over the way he has been characterized has influenced her book to the point where she's not been completely honest. I sense an extreme ambivalence despite the author's efforts to insist how great he is and how much she loves him. She *should* be ambivalent. I also think that an author of a memoir shouldn't cater her book to the feelings of the people in it. Either tell it like it is or leave it out completely.
In general, this book was interesting, but difficult to read. I'm sure my responses to it have to do with my own emotional issues at least as much as the writing itself. In any case, I have read far more engaging memoirs about abuse. Please know that I'm evaluating *the book* here, and not judging the author. She has lived through hell, and is still trying to heal.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Book of the Dead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Rating 3/5

A standard mystery-thriller wrapped in Egyptian heiroglyphic paper. It starts off extremely slow and very gradually builds up steam. About 1/3 of the way through I realized this book was part of a series, and I think I would've enjoyed it more if I'd read the preceding books - there were a whole lot of characters introduced right away, which was confusing, and a lot of them had interconnected backgrounds that were mentioned but not fully explained. This took away from my connection to the characters. In addition, I was hoping for more Egyptian history and mythology, but in truth the subject was incidental to the plot - an Egyptian tomb was just the place where the authors decided to host the events of the story. Although the build up was very gradual, the pace eventually quickened and I found myself extremely interested in what happened next. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for murder mysteries, I may read the rest of the series, since some of the characters are quite intriguing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Inheritance by Simon Tolkien

Rating 3/5

Despite a whole lot of 'meh', I was compelled to keep reading this book, so I suppose I'm ambivalent, although my over-all feeling is of being unimpressed. I've never been much of a fan of straight murder mysteries, and even though a mysterious codex and sacred relic were pivotal to the plot, the history behind them wasn't, and was only briefly discussed in order to merely identify the object. Which, for me, made this book far less interesting than I thought it would be. The narrative unfolds in a meandering, seemingly disorganized style, sometimes shifting perspectives between characters in the middle of a paragraph, which I found disruptive. As may be standard in a murder mystery, details are withheld and given up over time so that the reader feels led from one conclusion to the next in a somewhat contrived fashion. In the end, the final clue turns out to be something we've repeatedly been told was impossible. Tolkien's characters, however, are interesting and varied, and redeem this otherwise mediocre book. IMHO.

Note: I won an advance reader's copy through the Goodreads First Reads program, which had no influence over my rating or review.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe by Lynne McTaggart

Rating: 5/5

I don't know if I had the skill and knowledge to read this book in a critical fashion, but from my limited perspective, it was convincing. There are several reasons for this: a) McTaggart's research seems - aside from her brief stereotyped characterization of the theory of natural selection - impeccable, as is her own critical analysis of the scientific method of the numerous studies she's cited. She doesn't make wild, unevidenced claims, and makes it clear what is speculation, what is theory, and does point out certain flaws in the experimental method where they crop up. Her skeptical critical approach and background stories of the scientists involved in this research give a lot of credibility.

On their own, these features are convincing. But then there's b) - I WANT to believe. As someone with chronic illnesses that standard medicine has utterly failed in every way, this book and its ideas gives me hope. In the past I've brushed off "energy medicine" and "alternative therapies" as mostly placebo effects, but this book makes a very strong case that there's more to it than that. Most important to me, it makes SENSE to me scientifically and therefore doesn't require flaky, New-Agey faith in mumbo-jumbo. I can deal with the concepts of electro-magnetic waves at certain frequencies a lot more peacefully than a vague mystical energy like "chi". Specifics make me a lot more comfortable exploring alternative ways of regaining my health. I will be seeking out additional scientific-minded books on the subject.