The Martian, Andy Weir
I have not seen the movie based on this book, but would like to, and don’t think it’s one of those things where I would feel cheated because the book was better. That isn’t because this wasn’t a good book; it’s because there’s not very much a movie could deviate from as it’s the actual science and technology that the plot—and its believability—hinge upon.
I expected this might be the sort of science fiction I don’t like due to the heavy load of, well, intense science. Instead, I found a very readable book that managed to take would could have been deadly boring and keep the reader interested and engaged throughout. Think of a play, with only two sets, with an assumed passage of time of YEARS, a lot of very technical information, and imagine what could go wrong. Somehow, Weir avoids all pitfalls and delivers entertainment and suspense instead—along with a great sense of humor. 3 Stars
Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie
Elements of this terrific novel remind me of Good Behaviour, which I read last year. Eminently readable yet also complex in its examination of the life of a woman considered unattractive but highly intelligent. As an American academic doing research in Britain and a firm Anglophile, Vinnie is confronted with a man that embodies everything she believes she dislikes about Americans and yet, he is not as much a flat stereotype as she wants to believe. The subplot involving a junior faculty member also in Britain to do research provides both comic relief and a foil in terms of physical attractiveness—this young man being so handsome that people are suspicious of him. A fascinating look at what happens when people internalize certain expectations and become their own jailers, unable to accept a different future even when it presents itself. 4 Stars.
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell
[I have decided to start doubling up the reviews so that I can catch up, since I’m reviewing things I read over six months ago and don’t recall clearly].
That said, I read Black Swan Green right after I read How to Build a Girl, so while I appreciate it on a technical level, I also felt entirely impatient and tired of the “white boy coming-of-age” format, since WE HAVE SO MANY ALREADY. I’ve read Summer of 42 and Catcher in the Rye and all the other various and sundry classic coming of age stories, which is all well and good until I read How to Build a Girl and realized what I’ve been missing. Had my mind not been opened, I’d say this was quite well done; but now I guess I’m woke and it’s unsatisfying. 3 Stars.
The Strain, Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
I shifted to The Strain after abandoning a science fiction novel that was killing me with how much I hated it. I expected it to be fairly light reading on the intellectual front. However, I did expect quality and frankly, that was largely absent. Naturally, one has to accept certain improbabilities if one is going to read a vampire story, and while the premise was a tad shaky, initially it was good enough. The first half of the book is setting up the scenario, and the airplane full of dead people is intriguing, as is the procedural aspect of the roles of TSA and the CDC, etc, if still seriously formulaic.
The trouble begins as the event unfolds into the result of this vampire contagion, where the book really breaks down into a series of predictable and boring scenarios of “another way to die by vampire and/or kill a vampire and splash a lot of yuck all over the place.” There are far too many commonalities with Walking Dead and it begins to feel exceptionally poorly imagined as the plot simply asks the reader to wade through a seemingly endless round of meeting new characters who have to die in a few pages. The reader loses touch with the main characters; their acceptance of vampire virus zombies happens too fast to be remotely believable, and the ending is so clearly a set up for the next book that one might wonder if a computer wrote this book and not a human. Also, whomever thought that the fluid that splashes out of the vampires in place of blood should be thick, white and viscous (and show up under black light) deserves 50 lashes for making it far too easy for a porn movie to do a..spoof? Tribute? Either way, there are things I don’t need to see gushing out of my vampire novel. One sad, solitary star.
The Art Forger, B. A. Shapiro
Really interesting, strong female character? Check. Fascinating look into the world of counterfeit art? Check. Suspense, drama, this book really had it all and I found it immensely enjoyable. Kirkus noted that it was a stronger on process than on plot, but the process was so fascinating that I didn’t mind that yes, one could poke some holes in the plot if one were feeling pokey, but I was too interested in the descriptions of painting, copying a great painter’s work exactly, and the main character’s internal ethical struggle to worry about that. 3.5 Stars.
Tea With the Black Dragon, R.A. MacAvoy
Would I have liked this if I read it as a child? Maybe? There’s so little here to sink one’s teeth into, despite it being a Hugo/Nebula nominee in the 1980s. Where some have found greatness, I found….insipid dialogue, foolish characters, and a plot that just wasn’t compelling. Also, it’s not a book, it’s a novella (barely). It’s funny how for some, a book is a total win and then others are just left cold. I am definitely left cold, sorry to say. 1 star.
Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia Butler
I have read other Octavia Butler novels and consider her work vastly important and worthwhile, even as it is often uncomfortable. I had not read Bloodchild, which is very well-known, or the other short story in this volume. What I did find irritating is that there is also a long essay included—which makes the title misleading. Am I nitpicking? Yes, but….the mood to read short stories and that to read essays is different, and I might not have bought the book had I know. 4 Stars only for Bloodchild, 2 Stars for the rest.
The English Spy, Daniel Silva
A perfectly satisfying and ultimately forgettable spy novel. The pacing is good, characters are strong, violence present and accounted for. Literature? No, but the epitome of summer reading. 3 Stars
Flight, Sherman Alexie
This is the first book of Alexie’s that I’ve read, and it likely wasn’t the best choice. The emotional elements are extremely strong, as our main character, an Indian foster child who calls himself “Zits” prepares to commit a major crime while at the same time struggles to find an identity from the minimal information he has about himself and other Native Americans. As part of that process, Alexie’s device is to have Zits yanked from present day and placed into the bodies of various people on alternate sides of the early Western expansion including Custer’s battle at Little Bighorn.
While the device functions to provide the reader with an opportunity to see Zits gain insight, it seems clumsily produced and is less seamless than I would have liked. It feels too heavy-handed, ultimately, like the author took a shortcut to wrap things up and arrive at the conclusion more quickly. In some ways, this feels almost like a draft and not an edited, complete novel. 3 stars mainly for topic despite plot problems.
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.