Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes

Rating 4/5

The central idea in this book is that ideas (memes) are subject to Darwinian evolution (natural selection) and, having hijacked our ancestors, are the reason we are so different from all other life on earth. It's an interesting idea and it is explained very well. The author takes us on a journey across America to visit different tribes of Indians, and uses the evolution of the tepee to explain the evolution of his ideas about ideas. And in true road trip form, I was very excited at the beginning, somewhat less excited but still happy to be on the road mid-trip, but 2/3rds of the way there I began asking "Are we there yet?". Hughes managed to get me as interested as I could possibly get (not much) in Native American history and (hardly at all) tepees. Luckily I am very interested in evolution, nature and culture. I'm not sure where one can go with the idea that memes are as selfish and function just like genes. It's definitely intriguing, but will it make a practical difference in how we live as humans if we know intellectually we are just gene and meme machines?

Hush, Hush (Hush, Hush, #1) by Becca Fitzpatrick

Rating 2/5

Even in the YA Urban Fantasy genre, where vampires sparkle, this book takes the cake for ridiculously preposterous. Average teenager Nora Grey meets mysterious guy with intense eyes in biology class. Sound familiar? Seriously, Fitzpatrick could've been a bit more subtle about how much she was ripping off Twilight. Oh, but it's not vampires, it's fallen angels, so it's not the same, right? No, it isn't. Because nothing that Nora does or feels makes any sense, it only makes me roll my eyes. If you are going to write a character that decides on a whim to chase dangerous boys, investigate murders and walk down dark alleys, you might want to give her a personality that suits, or at least one that's struggling with identity issues. I gave this book two stars instead of one because after the gargantuan effort it took me to suspend every molecule of disbelief in my body, the plot became quick and eventful and the story managed to take me out of my own life for awhile, which is really all I wanted out of it in the first place.

See my review of Silence (Hush Hush #4)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Rating 3/5

What an odd little book. This is the first book I've read in the Cannongate Myths series, which is a collection of stand alone books by different authors. From Byatt's afterword, I gather most of them are written as novels that rework the myths into a modern form, and I like that sort of thing. This book was different - it wasn't really a story, just a retelling of the myths from Byatt's own perspective when she read them as a child in Wagner's Asgard and The Gods. In between forays into the story of Ragnarok (the Norse Gods' Armageddon) we see glimpses of the child's life in a country village during WWII, in which she endlessly names the plants and animals she sees around her and occasionally questions the other myths she learns in church. As such, there isn't really a plot here, which Byatt readily admits. Still, she is obviously a very skilled writer, and I enjoyed the myths.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Spell Bound (Women of the Otherworld, #12) by Kelley Armstrong

Rating 2/5

I've never before accused a book of being all-plot and no substance before, and as a fan of Kelley Armstrong I hate to give a negative review, but this book was the worst in the series so far. It felt rushed on every level - as if she'd been rushed in writing it, it had been rushed into publication, and most of all the beyond break-neck pace made me feel like I was being dragged along and rushed while reading it.

This book is setting up an all out war among supernaturals to come in the next of the series, and as such brought every main character together in a tangle of plotlines. There's nothing wrong with the complexity, the problem was the book should not have been written in first person perspective (Savannah's). Setting aside my issues with Savannah as a character for a moment, the choice of perspective forced Armstrong to do a lot of telling rather than showing, and that is really boring. Add to this the necessity of doing background explanations on each character and their history, and this book is just full of explaining. The rest was a repetitive alternation of quick action scenes and regrouping and planning conversations - in person, via text and telephone. These breaks were also the place where Armstrong attempted to develop the relationship between Adam and Savannah.

I'm going against the grain, it seems, in not liking Savannah. Everything about her character seems forced and unoriginal - she reminds me of every other young woman protagonist in urban fantasy these days - tough but with predictable interpersonal issues. That's basically standard in YA urban fantasy lately. But - oh wait - Women of the Otherworld isn't a YA series. It seems like the author forgot that as she was writing Savannah's novels. There's talk of feelings, but no real passion, and obviously no deep romantic involvement here. One of the themes of this book, obviously, is "growing up". Only Savannah's reason to try to be more mature is so a boy will love her, which is kind of a paradox. Adam only comes around after he believes Savannah is dead, and it strikes me as weak that they have to almost die in order to admit their feelings to one another. Especially since Savannah is supposed to be someone who has always been assertive about expressing herself. As I was reading this book I felt like maybe it was Armstrong who had a problem letting Savannah grow up. In any case, as I said above, the story would've been better told had the author used a third person viewpoint instead of insisting on telling it through Savannah's eyes.

I will read the next book in the series to find out how it all ends, but in a way I'm glad it will be over soon, because it seems like the author has had enough, and because of that, so have I.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Envy (The Fallen Angels, #3) by J.R. Ward

Rating 2/5

Ward weaves a decent web of a story, and I can forgive the formulaic lust-mance, but there are a lot of things that annoy me about her language (none of which is the swearing). Tops on my list of annoyances is the ridiculous way the archangel chapters are written. Using a few pretentious-sounding words and a lot of "herein"s does not a Victorian English dialect make. What it does make is a distasteful distraction, and I wish she would just give it up.

All Ratings and Reviews For J.R Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood and Fallen Angels Series)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bed by David Whitehouse

Rating 4/5

The cynical critic in me wants to point out the flaws in this book, whereas the rest of me wants to praise its emotional resonance. This book makes me want to use all those horrible cliched words like "poignant" and "touching", words that I usually avoid like the plague, but words that are apt in this case.


Cynical critic says: odd and awkward metaphors. The simplistic tone reminiscent of so much of contemporary writing. The oft-repeated message "I was told growing up would be great, but it isn't" from virtually every character's mouth as if the author just invented disillusionment. Occasional hyperbolic accounts of events that stretch the reader's belief.

Otherwise: florid descriptions of Malcolm's body that literally made me nauseous (not sure this is really a positive, but it took talent!) Emotional content spanning all sadness-related feelings in a very truthful fashion. Satisfactorily semi-triumphant conclusion without over-doing it. I enjoyed the the contrast of perspectives between the brothers. Actually, Malcolm's obesity has a different effect on every character in the book, giving them each a unique perspective.

Overall this story was sometimes hard to stomach but also hard to put down.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

Rating 1/5

A waste on so many levels. I have to admit I did cry a little, but then I also cried the other day over a nature show on the migration of the red crab, so...you know. Grain of salt and all that. I did try to read this book like a mythology, but I simply couldn't forget the fact that people out there actually literally believe this stuff. Why would an atheist-Buddhist even read this book, you ask? Curiosity. I want to know what I'm dealing with when I deal with believers. And if the main character and writing level in this book are any indication, I'm dealing with people who have the mentality and emotional maturity of eight year olds. I know it's meant to be a parable, but Mack (who everyone except anyone in this book apparently calls Allen, according to the narrator Willie, who also calls him Mack) is so predictable and child-like he's cringe-worthy. I had this whole analogy worked out comparing the ideas in this book to fruit salad suspended in jello made with fake sweetener, but I'll just let you work that out on your own. Also let me say that if wishes were horses, The Shack would be about a stampede. Finally, in the course of reading I made up a word, and that word is: barf-shit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

Rating 1/5

Stephen King called this one of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century, and it was on that recommendation that I picked up and forced myself to read this book. I love Stephen King, but I totally disagree with him. This book was not great, not even good. I like careful writers, and Dan Simmons is anything but careful. This story is at least four hundred pages too long. Actually, it's more like 700 pages too long. I think it would have done nicely as a short story, for all the emotional involvement I felt with the characters. A short story would have got the point across without wasting so much of my time and effort. I really expected big things from this book and all I've gotten is the well-earned knowledge that I don't like Dan Simmons's writing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Echo in the Bone (Outlander, #7) by Diana Gabaldon

Rating: 3/5

Well, the last 200 or so pages were good, though it is odd to drop your cliffhanger 100 pages before the end. In my opinion Gabaldon pays so much attention to detail she forgets the over-all picture. Said picture is therefore scattered (lacking in cohesion), sometimes tedious and occasionally confusing. Par for the course with this series, though.

I keep reading this series for the same reason everyone else does: the characters feel like family and I want to know what happens to them. So, while reading these books I always find myself overlooking things that, objectively speaking, aren't very realistic even in context. I do get emotionally involved with the characters - I admit that the Lallybroch reunion did make me cry quite a bit - but Gabaldon makes it difficult to stay emotionally involved because she keeps switching storylines/perspectives.

I found the military scenes in this book quite tedious, as I wasn't looking for a re-enactment of several battles of the American Revolution, complete with a dizzying amount of characters. It's as if Gabaldon has done so much research she feels compelled to foist it on her unwitting readers. Somewhere along the line she must have heard the phrase "less is more", but she has yet to listen (at least not since Voyager).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

WWW: Watch (WWW, #2) by Robert J. Sawyer

Rating 2/5

There are things about this series that are really starting to annoy me, like the Canada vs America culture comments, which I find kind of insulting. I actually live in the city the series takes place in, and while the details are accurate - there really is a Lens Crafters at Fairview Mall, RIM and the Perimeter Institute exist as described - I don't feel like the people are at all realistic. I've read a few Sawyer novels, and I think it's fair to say his books are more about ideas than people. His characters are predictable stereotypes with no depth or complexity, and they do only what is necessary for the plot, not what would make sense for them. It's one thing to have a genius 16 year old blind girl, but everyone in this book knows things they shouldn't know. A sixteen year old boy who knows about Canadian language law? That's just one example of things that are totally unbelievable about this book. It's almost cartoonish. The ideas that are presented are extremely interesting, and that's where Sawyer succeeds. I just wish those ideas didn't have to be surrounded by so much contrived cheese. I'll still read the third book in the series, hopefully it will be an improvement.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye by Brad Warner

RATING: 5/5

Another sparkling down-to-earth book about Zen from Brad Warner. I've given it five stars for being the first Buddhism book I've read in a very long time that made something in me go "whoosh" for a moment of understanding. Of something having to do with self and consciousness. Thank you, Brad. Now I will attempt to forget about that experience and go on with life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Rating 4/5

A beautifully written book, with amazing character portraits. It made me think hard about love - what it is, and what its place can be in a life, etc. Part of me can't find anything honorable in Florentino Aziza's love, because it was based on a non-relationship and therefore more likely to be defined as an obsession. But another part of me thinks maybe there are people out there who might live their best life in such a single-minded way. I'm obviously not one of those people, and I struggled to take Aziza seriously. Slowly but surely the author won me over, and I wasn't even unhappy with the ending like I thought I would be. The only flaw I found in my experience of this book was that I didn't really connect with or like any of the characters. While they were described meticulously and fascinating, I didn't care very much about them, and I read for the sheer pleasure of the prose rather than to find out what happened to them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Rating: 2/5

[Previous 1 star review: I listened to this on audio book, read by my favourite Jane Austen narrator, but that wasn't enough to hold me until the end. Sick and twisted characters, child abuse and neglect, darkness. I couldn't stand it. Perhaps I'll go back and read it one day - with the foreknowledge of how morbid it is, I might be able to discover why so many people love it.]

Now that I have read the paper version, I'm giving this book another star. I can appreciate the writing and story-telling and will admit it was engaging. But I still don't get it. All the characters in the main story, with the exception of Nelly, seem to me incredible idiots. Where else can you find an entire cast of people so wholly irrational and blind? Everybody in this story is completely misguided about their own self-interest, to the point where it's ridiculous.

Much has been said about the ferocity of Heathcliff's so-called 'love' for Cathy, but in my opinion a passion that poisons everyone in the vicinity, rather than inspiring kindness and a desire for self-improvement is not love at all. I've never been a fan of revenge scenarios, and I'm incapable of admiring or even believing a character whose entire being is bent on it to the ruin of everyone including himself.

I don't hate this book. The writing is great and the story is engrossing. I just think it's over-the-top and not worthy of praise for being "insightful" about "the terrible truths about men and women", as is written on the back of my copy. I've never known anyone who behaves to the brutal degree of these characters, except for the mentally ill.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Rating 4/5

I was a bit ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it's a great story with an original narrative. On the other, it was sometimes hard to follow and there were a few instances where I found the events/behaviours of people a little difficult to believe. I've read several books describing captivity, but I believe this is the only one that was fictional. I think the author mostly did a good job of portraying the minute psychological effects - of both mother and child - of long-term imprisonment. I think a parent reading this book may have a different and or stronger reaction to the subject matter than I did. As a story, it was interesting, engaging and unique.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Rating 3/5

Hmm. I have mixed feelings about this book. I think the original french version, or even a different translation than the one I read, may have made for a different experience. As it was, I regularly found myself drifting completely away and not bothering to go back and read the passages I'd been unknowingly skimming. I picked up a lot of hints that, in french, the writing might have been a lot more compelling. This English translation was quite tiresome in places.

Madame Bovary is the kind of character written to be both sympathetic and dislike-able. I've read a couple of other books with characters like her - Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady - and found them more enjoyable than this one, because those stories had more depth and were able to create more sympathy.

This book definitely had its moments, and there was a decent section in the middle that mostly kept my attention from wandering. I "get" why it's a classic, so I appreciate it, but I didn't enjoy all of it. I'm as ambivalent about the book as a whole as I am about its protagonist, though not for the same reasons. I am, however, glad I read it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander, #6) by Diana Gabaldon

Rating 3/5

On its own merits, this book probably deserves only two stars, but I'm a fan of Jamie and Claire so I gave it an extra one. This series seems to become more and more plotless as it progresses. Ostensibly it's about the prelude to the American Revolution, but really it's just a chroncle of life on Fraser's Ridge. If we didn't already know and love the Frasers, that wouldn't count for much. Abductions, deaths, marriages, infidelities, pregnancies, gossip, mishaps...it's the same old same old. These things happen one after another after like a series of side-plots. Which would be fine if there was actually a main plot running concurrently, but there isn't. Things just happen briefly and then we move into the next random episode.

The mark of a good story is that everything described contributes to plot and character development. In this book, very little seems necessary, and some scenes that might be actual opportunities for character development are skipped over entirely. I don't think any of these characters have grown or changed at all over the entire series. It's a good thing, then, that Jamie and Claire are so endearing to begin with.

If you classify these books as being in the "romance" genre, then I can see why they might seem like the cream of the crop. I tend to think of them as historical fiction, a genre with a much higher literary standard (in my opinion). Just because your books contain more words on average than any other series in history doesn't make you a better writer. In fact, the length of these books makes them a tedious undertaking. You expect a book this long to have an epic storyline, but it barely has one at all. So why did I bother to read it? Well, it's because after spending so much time with this cast of characters, they've become like family and it's comforting to come back to them. And also because with each new book in the series I keep hoping Gabaldon will manage to recreate the magic of the original Outlander. She hasn't quite done it since Voyager, but when it comes to books, I'm an optimist.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Rating 3/5

The message in this book is really important, but I didn't always care for the presentation. I understand the author was trying to appeal to a certain audience - namely the general masses who don't think critically or understand the basics of science - by trying to be amusing. Personally, as someone who does think critically and understands science, I think this is a serious issue that deserves a serious perspective, and reading this book gave me a feeling of dissonance. Is it right to joke about a pervasive issue that does so much harm? Goldacre seems to think this is his only way of delivering his message to the people who need to hear it most, and that end justifies the means. But in the process he dilutes his own credibility and the gravity of the problem. I don't have a solution to this dilemma.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Imaginary Illness: A Journey Into Uncertainty and Prejudice in Medical Diagnosis by Chloe G.K. Atkins

Rating: 5/5

A real life horror story that was difficult to read but worth the effort. At times, the descriptions of Atkins' suffering along with the outrageous mistreatment she received from health care professionals affected me physically. I felt queasy, squeamish, agitated and pained. I was often incredulous that so many doctors and nurses could watch a person suffer like Atkins did with such callousness and indifference. Sometimes it was so unbelievable I questioned whether her depictions were somehow skewed, exaggerated or otherwise unobjective, but I feel I have to give her the benefit of the doubt, because she does also recognize those times she got proper care. I thought her observations and ideas about medical ethics were well-argued and would have liked to hear even more about that issue from her perspective. The author's courage and will to live despite everything she's suffered are inspirational.

I also enjoyed Hodges' critical commentary/afterword and think it's a very important component of this book. He presents solutions to the problems Atkins faced that would really help if they were implemented by all healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, I don't have much hope that many doctors and medical institutions will actually make the time and effort to put them into practice. Doctors are humans - busy, stressed, and flawed - and in my experience most of them will always find reasons not to do the extra work required to be of better service to their patients. They have so much on their plates already, the challenge is to convince them that making an effort to improve their communication, mindset and empathy is in everybody's best interest and, ideally, not optional.

As a person who also suffers from a complex, chronic illness with no physical markers and inconclusive diagnosis (though less life-threatening), I could relate to some of Atkins' experience. Parts of this book touched close to home, particularly the descriptions of invalidation, the struggle with self-doubt and feelings of powerlessness. The fact that she accomplished so much personally and professionally even while being so ill and immobile makes it even more incredible and enraging to me that so few people believed she had a physical, biological illness. I can only dream of having that muchr determination and discipline.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What's Up Down There?: Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend by Lissa Rankin

Rating: 3/5

Okay, this is going to be a difficult book to rate and review, because I loved most of it, but the last chapter and a half made me want to scream. So I'm going to review it in sections.

The first half of the book was fantastic, I couldn't put it down. It was entertaining, informative, easy and fun to read. Starting with the chapter on fertility, I found it less enthralling, but still very interesting. This was to be expected, since I have no personal interest in fertility or pregnancy, and haven't yet reached perimenopause. I particularly enjoyed the author's stories about her gynecological patients and personal experiences. There were some questions I felt she didn't fully answer, but for the most part this was a great read and I'd recommend it to every woman and any man who is interested in women.

When I first picked up this book, I was afraid the Pink Power stuff would turn me off, but it wasn't over the top at all - until you get to the last two chapters. The second to last chapter was about developing a relationship with your "Yoni", which I thought was corny but I could see how it might be useful to women who are very uncomfortable with their nether regions. I value my vagina, but I don't need to have conversations with it, and I don't see my reproductive system as "sacred" any more than I do the rest of my body parts. But whatever. If you need to see it that way in order to be more comfortable with yourself, fine. But then, as I was reading, my throat started seizing up - a very clear somatic sign that I wanted to scream and have my say against what the author was trying to shove down my throat. Primarily, throughout the entire book, she comfortingly reassured me over and over that I was a normal woman, but then she took it all back. Because a "normal woman", apparently, is someone who "gets to wear sparkly, frilly pink things, carry new life inside us, resonate on a deeply emotional level, hold the family together, enjoy long lunches and phone calls with our girlfriends, and be cheerleaders for the world." This does not describe me one bit. I don't do frills, I don't enjoy gossip or talking about every detail of mine or my friends' lives, and I will probably never have a family or even a baby. According to this definition, I may as well be a man inside a woman's body. I know I'm probably not the only one, but the author sure doesn't make it sound that way. She makes it sound like unless you are a 'girly girl', you are not a real woman. Which I think is bullshit.

Then, to make things worse, she does go all Pink Power in the last chapter, talking about "owning" your femininity and loving your body and giving birth to your "authentic self". I'm not convinced that your "authentic self" (if there is such a thing), has anything to do with your genitalia. Further, Rankin makes it sound like the only barrier to loving your body is in your mind. Which, for someone whose body fails her daily (I have chronic pain and fatigue), is rather dismissive. I'm sure the author didn't have me in mind when she wrote this chapter, but there are a hell of a lot of us chronically ill women out there for whom loving our bodies is next to impossible, regardless of whether we have lumpy butts or a big fat belly.

In addition, I consider myself to be a feminist, but this Girl Power Sisterhood makes me cringe. It just seems like another ego trip, another label to wrap around your identity. Why can't we just accept ourselves without having to wave a (pink) flag and call ourselves especially divine? I'm all for empowering women to demand equality, to respect themselves and each other. But I think there's something defensive and childish about the Pink movement. I prefer to see people as individuals regardless of their gender. Being a woman isn't "special" any more than being a man is. We are what we are, and what we are is human.

I very much enjoyed the vast majority of this book, which makes the final chapters an even more bitter pill to swallow. If it ever gets re-released, I'd recommend leaving out or at least vastly rewriting the ending.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Rating 3.5/5

This book was a bit strange. Consistency-wise, it was lumpy in some places and watery in others. I'm still not sure what the point of it was, which is pretty hard to take in a tome of this size. All that effort, and all you get at the end is a petering out, like the author just got sick of his story, and a bunch of unanswered questions. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth, though I enjoyed a great deal of this book while I was reading it, and it is certainly memorable.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Rating 4/5

I'm giving this 4 stars even though I thought the first story in this collection of four only deserves 2 stars. I almost quit reading this book because of that initial novella, but I'm glad I didn't, because the other three were great. Even the Afterward was amusing. It was part diatribe, part explanation of his story ideas, and somewhat defensive-sounding. It starts off saying that the stories in Full Dark are "harsh". That may be true, but I didn't experience them as harsh while I was reading. And I can't imagine King's other "Constant Readers" being shocked by them either. These stories have perhaps more realism and less supernaturalism than is usual for King, but they are just as horrific, and maybe that equals harsh. Because reality is sometimes a horror story too. I personally prefer King's longer, more heavily populated stories, but then I'm not a big short story fan to begin with. In either format, this author's top skill is his ability to flesh out his characters' personalities and make them extremely real. He does this not by description, but by bringing us into the minutiae of their minds and memories. He makes us know and care about them, thereby assuring that we will share their terror and suffering.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering by Melanie Thernstrom

Rating: 3/5

I read a few reviews before I started this book, and I thought I would like it more. It has 3 aspects - memoir, history and science/technical - all mashed up together. A lot of people complained about this, but I think it was necessary to make the book readable. The technical/science writing was so dull I found myself spacing out a lot, and needed the memoir and history parts to pull my attention back. As a person with chronic pain, sometimes the information in this book made me feel so hopeless I had to put it down. That's not the author's fault, though. The truth is, we are very far away from effective treatment for most chronic pain cases, and it's possible there is no answer at all. That's pretty depressing. The fact that I finished this book at all proves it has some merit.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki

Rating 3/5

An extremely intellectual approach to Buddhism. I used to think I liked that sort of thing, but perhaps not to this extreme. I actually found it discouragingingly inaccessible - it gave me the feeling that the "goals" of practice are pretty much unreachable for someone like me. I'm not sure exactly why that is. There is much to be garnered from this book, however, and it will be worthwhile to read it again in the future. Sometimes you're just not in the right place on your path to get a lot out of a certain book, and I think that's what's happened to me here. I look forward to the day when it will speak to me.

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy Patients by Sheldon B. Kopp

Rating 3/5

There are a lot of good ideas in this book, and much of it is compelling reading. Still, I found myself turned off when the author wrote about himself. He seems a bit holier-than-thou at certain points, even though (or perhaps because) he takes pains to repeat that he's just an ordinary guy like everyone else. He says that, but he also seems to try infuse his descriptions of his experience with a mystical quality. Maybe it's just me. Also, it kind of ruins his credibility when he says things like, "Homosexuality is heterosexuality gone astray." I know that was the accepted "diagnosis" at the time the book was written, but it calls into question everything else he has to say. Nonetheless, it's worth reading. Take what you can and discard the rest.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot

Rating 4/5

It took me 400 pages to stop despairing I'd never be able to finish this book, and then the closer I got to the end, the more I didn't ever want it to be finished. I can't rightly say whether this is because the book got better as it went, or whether I just got better at reading it. I was so disappointed in myself for the first half of the book, knowing that this was supposed to be such a great story and not enjoying it. Every fifth (run-on) sentence in the first half had me rereading it several times, and not always successfully divining its meaning. Some of this was due to my complete lack of knowledge about British politics of the era, but sometimes I just couldn't figure out what the hell Eliot was getting at. Which was pretty sad for me since it's not like I'm unfamiliar with classic English literature. But I found things much easier going and indeed engrossing during the second half, and finally (with relief) can say that I "get it" about this book. While I'm still not sure that the effusive amount of detail about what was going on in the characters' minds was all of it necessary (obviously no writer back then had been taught to "show, not tell"), I can see what it - eventually - added to the book. It takes awhile, but at length we become intensely emotionally invested in the characters' fortunes, which for me is the sign of a great story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Exley by Brock Clarke

Rating 4/5

This book plays pinball with your head, specifically your suspension of disbelief. Usually an author will let you know up front what's true and what's false in his story, which characters are lying and their motivation - but those are the very things that create the mystery in this book. The characters, especially the sympathetic protagonist, want to believe their own fictions so much that you want to believe them too. But their stories clash, there's only one truth, and it turns out each of them has a part of it but not the whole. This makes for a real mind-bending uncertainty, especially in the last half of the book. The result is an unsettling and intriguing reading experience. Clarke has done something unique (to me, at least) in his story, something that made me think closely about the usually trustworthy relationship between an author and his reader. This book is twisty, sometimes confusing, but always fascinating.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz

Rating: 3/5

Dean Koontz makes it hard not to compare him to Stephen King, because it seems like that's where he gets his ideas. The difference between them is in the depth - of the characters and of the web of evil in which they become entangled. While almost every King book seems epic in these qualities, Koontz's seem like a pale shadow. A lot of reviews hail this book as the return of Koontz at his best - if that's the case, I'm not in any great hurry to catch up on those that I haven't read yet. I'll say it again - what makes a horror book terrifying is an intense connection with the characters to which the scary things are happening. King is a master at this, Koontz is not.

That said, this book in particular isn't bad or anything. The story is interesting enough, but it was hard (for me at least) to relate to the characters. Do families so perfect even exist? Koontz's attempt to juxtapose great evil with perfect innocent goodness creates a situation that rings false and even stereotyped at times. There were scattered paragraphs of near-philosophy in this book that sometimes broke up the pace just enough to jar my mind away from the story. Despite these flaws, however, I did continue reading with much curiosity. The ending was satisfying, if a little cheesy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Rating: 3/5

Though I found it difficult to stay interested in this book at times, it did have its moments. I can see the merits of the book - why it's a classic - but my unfamiliarity with a lot of the cultural allusions (such as the Operas and the actors) created quite a few moments where I fell out of the story. However, the main characters were compelling, and so was the conflict between constricting customs and human desires. In the end, it was definitely worth the effort.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The 13th by John Everson

Rating: 1/5

Never trust the quotes on the back of a book. Maybe it's just me, but sick and twisted does not equal scary. This book was lame, the characters were all totally shallow and idiotic, and so was the dialogue. I forced myself to finish it because a) I thought maybe the ending would make up for everything else (it didn't), and b) I admit I was a bit curious to find out what was going on. Turns out it was just senseless gore, which is a bore.