Pym, Mat Johnson
I was really interested in this based on the synopsis and that the subject matter was about an African American experience in Academia—there aren’t a lot of books about black professors, as far as I know. The first part of the book is funny, sharp-witted and full of observations that enlarged my view of the world. The rest….is this post modern? I know it’s all allegorical and metaphorical and such but it veers into such utter strangeness that I found myself really mourning the loss of the first part.
I wanted to know more about being a black professor whose peers feel isn’t “black enough” and being a self-destructive academic with a huge book collection, but instead the book takes us on a bizarre and hard to follow trip to Antartica where they find giant…abominable snow persons? I get the irony, black people exploring the whiteness, but the rest of the book was, sadly, entirely lost on me. I don’t even know how to rate it. It might be a masterpiece, it might be utter trash, I JUST CAN’T TELL. It got so very, very weird. 2 and half stars, I guess.
Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Amy Stewart
The second in what I would describe as “Historical Fiction Lite” focusing on real-life Sheriff’s Deputy Constance Kopp, this book indicates that the author plans to create a mystery series that could go on indefinitely. Thus, while still imminently readable and entertaining, it begins to suffer from a formulaic feel, knowing that soon there will be a whole new set of hijinks for our heroine to navigate, and having already explored the time period, the reader might expect to find future editions a bit repetitive and stale.
As a reader, I tend to dislike mysteries for the sake of mysteries, and am never (so far) that inclined to read a big series featuring the same characters. Four is about is far as I can usually go, and in this series I suspect two is the limit. Still, this one was a quick, painless read and perfectly harmless. 3 stars.
I’m excited that I still recall just how very, very much I disliked this book when I read it. Sometimes I forget, but this one remains fresh, god bless it.
World building is not easy. There are so many ways it can go wrong, and Mr. Dashner has managed to take this sideways in so many different directions, the mind is boggled. Most importantly, and often overlooked in the face of transgressions like unrealistic characters, clumsy plot and poor editing, is the use of swear words. Where worlds like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly managed to develop alternate slang that was enough like reality to be contextualized, Maze Runner fails entirely. Most obvious (and really, I almost stopped reading as soon as this word was introduced) is the use of the word “klunk” in place of crap or shit. This is actually explained by a character as referring to the sound poop makes when it falls into a bucket (presumably what they are using for toilets). I would suggest that if saying the word out loud makes you feel uncomfortable and like laughing, it is a failure. Small details like that can be overwhelmingly distracting, and here there isn’t the refuge of great characters, strong dialogue or even a compelling plot to fall back on.
Additionally, following the success of other dystopian YA fiction (The Hunger Games, chiefly), everyone with a computer is rushing to jump on the band wagon and secure their screen writing deal. When that happens, the reader is left entirely out of the process. The book is a means to a movie deal, and the reader is incidental. The world already has Lord of the Flies, so a story involving teenage boys left to their own devices has to be careful not to be derivative. Maze Runner, however, fails in that regard.
In short, I would say that “klunk” is the sound this book should make when you throw it in the garbage can.
Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch
What would happen if your general practice MD was a sociopath? A fascinating little window into the mind of a European doctor who is not a particularly nice person. He is also the unreliable narrator of the story, which structure is deftly handled by the author. All around the edges of our main character’s observations lurk different realities and truths, yet we also have to understand his point of view. The first half of the book is really quite brilliant, particularly for an American reader where doctors are not just regular working joes but instead treated as demi-gods. Here, our main character is just a guy showing up to a job he doesn’t particularly like—and which begins to fill him with resentment. He has no empathetic interest in his patients (or, really, his family) and the reader certainly isn’t supposed to like him.
The major flaw in this novel is the ending, which attempts to be too clever and leaves the reader holding the bag. The weakness of the plot is consistent, but the characterization and descriptive writing are, in my opinion worth the missteps. 3 Stars.
The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson
This was a tough book to read for several reasons. Most important being that bearing witness to the atrocities of slavery is painful and it should be. The memories of that abuse survive in the souls of all who experienced it even generations later. Secondly, it’s extremely complex. There are three sets of characters who are treated somewhat unevenly, creating inconsistent pacing. Third, archetypal gods are present, but somehow don’t settle down enough into the writing to feel cohesive. I’ve seen criticisms of the amount of sex and that there is a lot of queer sex, but those are silly—sex is historically accurate, and lesbianism is not new. The sex is there to remind us of the need, the desperate need, to be connected to people particularly when your life is comprised of such astonishing hardship.
That said, the book is important and the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. Each character is very well constructed, the writing is descriptive and challenging. I suspect this is deliberate on the author’s part; perhaps hard topics shouldn’t be easy to read about. Like history, it’s not a neat package and as a device I think it’s legitimate. 3.5 Stars
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
This made it into the top ten books I read in 2016. Historical fiction done well transports the reader to a time so successfully that even without any knowledge of that it was like, it’s as if one is there—and the author is very successful in that regard here. A bleak, unromantic look at the desperation created by ignorance, religion and poverty wherein a little girl is at the center of claims of a miracle; namely that she has stopped eating and drinking entirely and is sustained only by her faith. Fascinating from the point of view of what medical science was available at the time, as well as how one’s prejudices can blind them from seeing what is dreadfully obvious. Compelling characters, strong dramatic tension and wonderful writing. 4.5 Stars
Good As Gone, Amy Gentry
A girl is kidnapped from her bedroom, ala Elizabeth Smart, and only her sister witnesses it. Many years later, a woman appears claiming to be the long-lost daughter. Thus, the novel has already limited itself by the binary of is she the lost daughter, or isn’t she? Such a plot choice then really puts the pressure on the author to manage this limited scope deftly, and characterization, dialogue and pacing become very important to holding reader interest.
It’s there that I think the author fails the reader. Plot devices are used in place of strong characterization and psychological suspense. Too much is derivative of the currently popularity of suspense novels, and this author lacks the skills to fully develop sympathetic characters. Readable, but also entirely forgettable. 2 stars.
The Quality of Silence, Rosamund Lupton
This book is a classic example of what happens when there is no editor on duty and a writer decides that plot is more important than anything else. The main character is a deaf nine year old girl, who has been dragged to Alaska by her unstable mother to look for her father who has disappeared. The relationship between mother and daughter is what the author really should have felt confident enough about to focus the book on that, instead of an over-wrought, impossible plot. At every twist and turn (the mother, with zero related background, at one point is driving a semi truck (think Ice Truckers) in the dark, fleeing a shadowy pursuer, etc) the plot becomes more and more unbelievable and therefore frustrating to the reader.
Had the plot/subplots been reversed, this novel could have been a really interesting examination of the clash between the deaf and hearing worlds, the desires of a parent to do what they think will best assist their child in making their way through the world versus the child’s own perception of themselves and what might, or might not, be her disability. I would have much preferred that book over what was produced instead, where the relationship was lost to the fantastic, unbelievable, and over-the-top screenplay it was buried in.
Stop action: You Made Me Come Over There.
The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell
A rollicking good thriller set in Vatican City, a subject certain to pique my interest anyway. I did not know about the Eastern Orthodox sect that is allegiant to the Catholic church but whose priest can marry, so that aspect was utterly fascinating. There is a great deal of religious history here, presented in a balanced format such that it doesn’t take away from the pacing and action of the plot. Strong characters kept my interest and there weren’t any glaring holes in the plot—a very enjoyable, undemanding read. 3.5 Stars