Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Can you spy a "Resolution"?

Hi, book blogging world!  I'm keen to read a little more thoughtfully this shiny new year, so am bringing Shaggy Dog out of retirement!

I've updated some lists, checked them twice, and am ready for more reading, and more blogging about reading, in 2014.

I've been in a zombie wasteland lately, so plan to write more about that, because decent zombie reviews can be hard to find.  I've got a few goals around broadening some of my reading this year, and picking up some more modern stuff so I'm not too hopelessly outdated.

I hope you're still out there, and will read along with me.  Looking forward to reading some of my old book blogging friends out there on the Interwebz.  Happy New Year!

Me and my Snow White in Central Park, October 2013.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

11/22/93, Stephen King

Before reviewing this book, I freely confess that I pre-ordered this goodie, and that I'm a die-hard King fan.  I think he's one of the greatest American writers working today, with his smooth sociological captures of slice after slice of American life, and American fears.  In fact, I'd probably go so far as to say he's my favourite author.  So I was keen to get stuck into this book.

But I just didn't love this.  Sure, Under the Dome was wordy, and underwhelming (it felt all too same-y to me, like nothing new had been said), but I rollicked through it.  King's opus about the Kennedy assassination (now with more time travel!! [TM]) mostly just dragged. 

Some bits, I loved.  But they were few and far between in a book that should have been a novella at most.  And this is from a woman who scoffs at the usual "King needs an editor" comments.  I love the wordy details of King's worlds.  I love the minute details, the small, almost private insights.  The complicated tie-ins.  11/22/93 needed a good edit.  Down to a quick 250 page "novella" at least.

So, what' it all about?  In a spoiler-free way, the plot goes thus: Jake Epping, a mild-mannered teacher from middle America, is introduced to a "time bubble" that allows a traveller to go back to an exact date and time in 1958.  And to step forward again, exactly 2 minutes after they left in the present time.  Trick is, every time you travel, it's a "reset" - back to the same time and place, as if you'd never been there before.

So, as you can tell from the novel's title [I can't resist pointing out that in Australia, the title would be 22/11/63], the novel centres around Jake's efforts to prevent the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, thus *saving America*, and so forth.

Okay, great idea!  But it was a long, long, long way to get there.

**Major SPOILERS follow**

There are three main arcs to the story: the first is an "I'm going to kill a murderer to prevent them doing the deed and killing their family," story.  This serves as our set up for being able to do the same to Lee Harvey Oswald when the time comes.  This part of the book was a gripping tale, and has some loose tie-ins to Derry and it's previous characters.  It felt like a traditional King "horror that lies within us" story, and as such, was probably the most successful part of the book, for me.

The second main arc is Jake's long journey to Dallas, via teaching in a small-town and falling in love with a woman with a crazy ex, while keeping very close tabs on Oswald in minute (and I mean minute) detail.  Parts of this arc just sing, the small town life, the love story - this is one of the things I love about King: he sees the nuances of human action and relationships, and manages to communicate them to us.

Parts of this section just drag, though, and in some of the tiny details about Oswald's life I had to stop myself from skimming [sacrilege!!  And I LOVE Stephen King!].  I think this dragging feeling might be due to the effort to make the details as accurate and well researched as possible.  And that the whole section should have been shortened to about 50 pages, instead of the hundreds that it ran to. It didn't make for gripping story-telling.  I did learn more about Oswald and his life and motivations, but parts felt more like a dry historical tome than a novel.

The third (and briefest) arc is the return to current times to see what happened as a result of Jake/George's meddling.  This was under-done.  There was an unconvincing and convenient conversation about time travel with an observer-type, that frankly if it had happened sensibly at the first trip Jake took would have prevented the whole novel from happening.  There was an easy-out "bad" society description (*look, society is bad and kids are mean to people, and also...pollution!*), and some of the decisions taken on the world stage if Kennedy had lived felt false, and were skipped over as a kind of "time travel causes bad stuff, just coz it does! effect.  Disappointing.  After all the details and effort of telling a time-alteration story, why not dwell more convincingly on what might happen next?  The convenience of the "don't meddle with time, it's bad, okay?" plot-line was shallow and disappointing.  I wanted a more nuanced finish: what would really have happened?

I would far rather King has wrestled with the issue of traveling back to save the woman he loved, at the expense of everything else, than get out of time-travel jail free with a "whoops, causes harmonic issues, thing turn out badly," woo-woo ending. 

Overall, this is one of the only King books I've been disappointed in.  Read it if you're a King fan, or a Kennedy buff, otherwise this might be one to skip.  By the end, I was too frustrated and full of plot critique to enjoy the moderately decent end.

6/10.
Read on Kindle for iPad.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Party!

Earlier this week, I held a book party.  What's a book party you ask?  It's a happy occasion I made up, where you're getting rid of about half your books and need a prodding helping hand.  Why might I need a hand? 

Well, here is what my books used to look like:


This is Lolly "catching a possum", a year ago, but shows a fair few of my books, there's another four bookcases you can't see in this shot, and some more upstairs (and a few boxes we didn't unpack).  Yup.  Ahem.  Kind of a lot. 

Here is what the precious-es have looked like since April, when we packed them (loosely speaking) and schlepped them upstairs.


Hmmm...

Our long ongoing renovation meant we were going to store heaps of books til we moved, but then decided that we had a gazillionty of them in digital form, and we should *gasp* get rid of the hard copies.  This took me months of thinking on it to agree to.  I LOVE books, and always loved having them out, I want a giant library one day.  But, really?  Books take up space, most of these books we will never read again, some were just plain crappy, and most of them I can read online, often for free.  So, I really had to think about why I was keeping them round at all.  Why is it we need to display things like books for public consumption?  Or our own consumption. And why is this tied to our self-concept so tightly (in my case, that is). 

Anyhoo, navel-gazing aside, you can see why I might need a hand sorting them.  The pile is huge, and the mental issues, likewise.

So, I asked some lovely friends and their kids to come over to play, to lend a hand, either physically or in moral support, and now the books look like this:

Books to keep, and collectibles

Kids books (to go back out on shelves) and DVDs.

So, thanks, muscly friends (both physically and morally), for helping me do a task I was really struggling with.  And making it a good day. 

Also posted at Memo To Self, my 'life' blog!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Now with more zombies!

Did you know...that when life is busy, and maybe hard, but mostly just life, possibly with a capital L, that reading gets short attention, and blogging about reading, even shorter.

And did you also know, that if you're me (so, okay, you possibly didn't know this) that when things are...hard...or let's say, life-like, that you get stuck in a reading rut, and stick somewhat stubbornly to genres and books that involve as little thought as possible?

Because that would totally explain why I've read nothing but zombie-post-apocalyptic books since...hmmm, April or so, rather than my 1001 list goals, or, indeed, anything other than books with the undead in them.  There must also be blood and brains. 

There is some wonderful psycho-analytic post in here about why zombies are the flavour of the year, and why I have such an undying love for the post-apocalypse, but that post shall wait for another day [or quiet possibly never].  I think it has something to do with the fact when you're dealing with shit all day, reading anything with real life in it is just. too. much.

Zombie guts are better. 
coz I am, totally, I've read ALL the books.
I'll review some of them, though.  Soon!

 [image credit]


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

World War Z, Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, is a startlingly clever read, using a series of oral-history interviews with a range of World War Z survivors from around the world to illustrate a whole lot that is wrong with our current society: the attitudes and actions of the conservatives in the West; class and racial divisions; terrorism; environmental degradation; the inherent selfishness of our surburban lives; the weaknesses of capitalism; our attachment to objects and technology; and...but wait there's more [steak knives!].

You can read this book as a macabre adventure tale of the zombie rise and epic human resistance, told in riveting vignettes.  And as a powerful critique of how humanity is facing our current crises and divisions, and how that might work out for us...or not.

There is some classic post-apocalyptic insights into the human soul here, some detailed and fascinating characterisation, as well as sweeping political summary and critique.  The chilling "last stand" at Yonkers (complete with press pandering and the futility of mass armament in the face of terror[ism]) is pretty masterful stuff, as is its counterpoint, the heroic and mechanically awful battle at Hero as America reclaims itself. Another of my favourites was the close telling of one air-woman's story, trapped behind the lines and increasingly desperate; and the tale of a blind warrior in Japan and his faith in the core of his country. 

There are women warriors, child warriors, blind warriors, armies in the "third" world, struggles in China, the novel takes us around the globe, big and small, working through the "history" of WWZ, from the first gory rise of the Zombie virus (cleverly mirroring the supposed development and reaction/lack thereof to HIV) and its spread, to the collapse of civilisation, to the rallying and defence, to the "victory" stages where the threat is largely defeated and humanity is cautiously peeking out from under the covers. 

I really liked this book, in it's simplicities and it's complexities.  I'll be reading it again soon to pick up more of that juicy social and political critique layer.  Be warned before reading: there is some full on zombie slaughter, it's not for the faint of stomach.

9/10

Another read on Kindle for iPad.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Far North, Marcel Theroux

Far North is another post-apocalyptic novel that focussed on life after *it* happens, *it* in this case is some kind of environmental/economic/social collapse.  Our narrator, Makepeace, is the last "constable" of a dead city in the wastes of Siberia, a city/town that had been settled as an escape from society by (apparently) mostly Westerners. Makepeace is alone, other than random travellers passing through.  The book tells of Makepeace's life and travels, searching for others (or the dream of what others would be like).

I really enjoyed the first part of this book, it was gripping, sensitively told, harsh, but intriguing.  Unfortunately, after this first section, it seemed like a different book.  Makepeace decides to leave the city, and journey in search of others.  The strange things that happen, and the pretty much utter hopelessness of the few humans who remain sat oddly against the basic humanity/goodness of the narrator.  It was as if everyone else became souless, cruel, and capable of anything.  Sure, I'm sure some people would be like this, and telling these stories is part of what makes post-apocalyptic and dystopia literature fascinating.  But, everyone?  The book becomes an unremitting tale of horribleness and tragedy.

And [spoilers] some of it was just unbelievable.  I simply didn't get the whole "prisoner" (really, slaves) camp deal.  The narrator was so matter-of-fact about it, it was almost literally "and then I lived in the prison camp for 5 years."  Oh, okay then.  I also don't believe that a woman could live for five years with the dire scum of humanity as described and not get raped.  Sorry.  Even if she had a knife. 

The whole issue of slavery, including that some people had apparently "volunteered" for slavery was not dealt with sufficiently.  It's a big deal, one that wasn't extended or explored.  Elements of the characters were unbelievable.  One of the slaves was (supposedly) a surgeon before the collapse.  Really?  Why didn't he just tell someone and bargain his way out?  Why were none of those essential skills not regarded as relevant or worthy of trade? I can't imagine a post-collapse society that wouldn't highly value a doctor (!!).  The book was littered with this kind of incongruity.  Like, what happened to everyone?  Why did everyone just disappear?  Didn't the narrator have any friends?  Where did they go?  How did they die? 

The treatment of the indigenous peoples in the novel was also problematic.  It was made clear that the settlers in the narrator's city weren't Russian (the city is in Siberia), or native to the region.  It seemed they mostly came from America.  The local indigenous people, all of whom seem to be living quite alright thanks very much, despite the collapse of "civilisation", are portrayed as drunk, violent, and don't even figure on the narrator's radar, other than a very occasional source of trade.  Even given that poor portrayal, the narrator's lack of interest in them is just odd.  If you were the only person alive in a city, and there was a perfectly functional community near you, wouldn't you be interested in them?  In making ties to them, trading, learning things?  Joining them??

Gender was the other main issue with the book.  Sure, for the first few chapters Theroux is playing with gender and identity, and we're supposed to be suitably surprised when Makepeace turns out to be a woman.  I guess we're supposed to feel that way because women aren't competent at surviving...or something...and the narrator is.  So *gasp* a woman!!  Wow, that's super special because she can hunt and chop wood and live alone and shot someone!  Who would-a thunk it!  I get what the author was going for, but didn't like it.  I'm generally not suprised when women are competent human beings. 

The other main gendered issue was that the novel turned out to be a kind of rape revenge book, and there was just something, some essential quality of experience, that I felt was missing in the book. The twists at the end seemed too contrived and worked out too simply.  The narrator just didn't seem as bothered by the sudden appearance of her rapist as you might expect.  It all sat a little oddly.

Look, I liked some of the book, some of the writing was compelling, and the first part was just great.  I wish it had continued in that vein. It just didn't work for me as a whole.  Some great ideas, but too much not explained or fully realised in the text. Worth a read if you're interested in the genre, otherwise give it a miss.

6/10

This was a Kindle for iPad read.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Passage, Justin Cronin

I like The New Dork Review of Books, and just before the rapture was scheduled, read his post on the best of the post-apocalyptic books.  Now, I love me a good end of the world story!  The Stand (Stephen King) is one of my go-to books, and I've read fairly widely in the field over the years.  But not lately, which is why there were several grand suggestions in the NDR list and comments I thought I'd try out.  So I'm blaming him for the reading jag I've been on since. 

The Passage was the first of my post-apocalypse reads, I finished it off in short order on our recent holiday.  I figured it would be a good last read in case of rapture ;)

The Passage is the first in a series (three, I think) of books by Justin Cronin about the fate of humankind after a virus gets loose and kills nearly everyone...by turning them into vampires (not a spoiler, this is made pretty clear in the very first pages of the book).  Don't let the immediate eye-roll of "vampires" put you off.  These are not sparkly, well-dressed debonairs.  Think more 28 Days Later over Twilight.  The Passage is a tale of surviving in the face of a weird virus that meant the end of the world story, not a teen romance. 

The book starts with some of the story of how it all happened, then, kind of disappointingly, skips ahead 100 years to focus on a small settlement eking out a living under lights.  I say disappointing because one of the bits I love in this kind of book is the slow descent into madness of civilisation, and the unravelling of our illusions of behaviour, which I felt was pretty much skipped in this novel. Those are still key themes, of course, isn't that the point of a rollicking post-apocalyptic novel?  Telling us how many of our dearly held beliefs about ourselves and our limits are (or might be) illusions?  But the close telling of the decline was skipped in this one.  *sad face*  Instead, after the initial outbreak, our story skips to a small, fractured community living behind walls and thinking they are the only ones left in all the world (read: America). 

The Passage focusses on the fate of one girl, Amy, infected with a "pure" strain of the virus (also not really a spoiler, her fate and role is foreshadowed very early in the book), and destined to play some central role in the climax of the virus-infected vs normals.  The bulk of the book is a crossing the wilderness story, some of the survivors set out to travel back to where the virus all began, and tells what they encounter on the way.

The swap between the immediate-aftermath novel and the 100-years-later novel was more than a little jarring, despite the journal entry that was meant to transition us gently.  I had become very involved in the central story of Amy and her companion, this was rapidly wound up (too rapidly I think) and replaced with a whole new world and cast to acclimatise to.  It felt like two separate books, and only started to tie back together in the final chapters.  While I enjoyed both parts of the book, it suffered from the lack of a transition phase, and the first part of the book was brought to too quick a finish.  This missing phase could have taken us through more of the collapse of civilisation, some of the efforts of survivors, maybe some vignettes to get us through to the next phase of the action. 

The Passage is well worth a read.  It's a gripping page-turner, a medical emergency and survival story, followed by a journey across the wilderness in the face of overwhelming odds, with a dash of light at the end of the tunnel.  It's bleak, but not hopeless.  If you like a tale about the end of the world as we know it, or enjoy a virus/vampire book, or liked The Stand, or just want a good story that's well written about the darknesses (and lightnesses) of the human soul, pick up a copy!  I'm looking forward to the release of the next installment...

8/10

This was a Kindle for iPad read.