Fifteen book reviews and an excuse

19 Mar
March 19, 2012

Procrastination, as they say, is a bitch.

As anyone who has done any sort of creative work knows, inspiration tends to strike you when you’re in the worst position to be able to take advantage of it. (Apparently there’s even a scientific reason for this.) As I write this, I am at least 4.5 hours behind on delivering on a deadline I promised a sort-of client. To be fair, this is partially because I spent most of the weekend incapacitated by a debilitating headache that drove me to take Tylenol for the first time in, oh, probably two years. And while I can probably still deliver on the product before the client gets up for the day–the beauty of being a night owl–the fact remains that I’m staring at my work at 4:30 AM on a Monday morning and all I can think about are the three new ideas I’ve had for blog posts in the past day or so.

I could simply jot down a few notes about the broad outlines of these posts and consign them to the lonely and neglected folder of blog ideas on my desktop, where they’ll be in great company with that half-written rant about college sports, that follow-up post about SOPA with 47 URLs languishing in a text file, and that email about Chinese proverbs that just needs a few tweaks to be adapted into a proper post.

But pushing these ideas out of my mind won’t actually stop me from procrastinating; they’ll simply ensure that by the time I come back to these ideas in four weeks I’ll barely remember what it is I wanted to write about. Instead, I’ll procrastinate tonight–this morning–by doing the dishes, taking out the trash, sweeping, and dusting places I’ve not dusted since I’ve moved into my apartment. All of which are still more pleasant than making myself work for an overdue deadline at 4:30 AM on a Monday morning.

So I thought I’d try something different. Instead of doing twenty different tasks that take five minutes each and pretend to myself that I’m being productive and preparing for work, really, I thought I’d indulge the creative itch for an hour, and see if that exhausts the attention deficit part of me enough for me to actually get down to earning some money.

*

I got a Kindle for Christmas. I love reading on it so much that I’ve barely touched my iPad in the past three months, and have actually sold it to a friend. Given the choice between reading a book and playing with an app, I will almost always choose the book. (I do miss Instapaper, but that’s a story for another day.)

I ran a tally just this week and realized I’ve read 15 books since Christmas. Count ‘em: fifteen. That’s more books than I’ve read in the first two years of university combined. If nothing else, I’m immensely grateful to the Kindle for bringing me back to reading again.

Longtime readers of the blog–all one of you–will remember that I used to write in-depth book reviews as a way of challenging myself, to ensure that I wasn’t writing the same format of posts all the time. Obviously I’m not going to write in-depth reviews of fifteen books; that would be silly. However, I do want to note down some thoughts about the following. No spoilers given.

*

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (urban fantasy, contemporary, romance): 8/10

This is a story of two apprentice magicians being pitted against each other from birth by their respective masters, forced to represent long-since irrelevant differences in magical philosophies in a life-long test of skill, and having no choice but to engage each other even when they slowly form a relationship with each other and with their battle arena they would rather die than betray.

I read this for a book club, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it–it’d been receiving a lot of press, and like any self respecting hipster I’m naturally skeptical of popular things. Nevertheless, it was quite a charming story. The plot moves along very slowly and the book’s strength is definitely more in the setting and the character development than in its narrative arc. I found the central characters a little too idealized at times and sympathized more with the supporting cast, but I did find the setting–the night circus itself–and the loyalty it inspires both in the central characters and in dreamers around the world to be very moving. I found the ending to be a little anticlimactic and not quite deserving of the build-up that had occurred throughout the progression of the story, but I know of others who really appreciated the somewhat nebulous wrap-up.

*

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John Le Carré (mystery, thriller): 7/10

I was pointed to this book as a good introduction to Le Carré’s writing style, and read it before I read TTSS (see below). It’s a very quick read and a very neatly self-contained spy story. I enjoyed it, saw some of the twists and turns in the story coming before they hit, and have little else to say about it.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré (mystery, thriller): 9/10

Given the significant attention paid to the recent Hollywood adaptation of this book, it would surprise me if there are many people unfamiliar with the plot. Basically: George Smiley is the protagonist of this and many more of Le Carré’s other works set in the Cold War, and he is tasked with investigating the possibility of a highly placed mole within the British Secret Service, within which organization he had served as a highly respected investigator until a political coup forced both he and his superior out.

I found this book to be a much better display of Le Carré’s considerable talent as a writer than the first book I read by him. The character development was a lot more subtle, and the interplay of characters was dealt with in hints and allusions rather than in outright commentary, which befits the secretive nature of the work that the protagonist engages in. This made it feel a bit more like you were solving the puzzle of the characters as the characters were solving the puzzle within their lives, which is rather satisfying when everything eventually falls together. It does have a fairly complex narrative structure, weaving back and forth between Smiley’s memories and recollections, his interrogations of other characters, and the action–if it can be called that–that eventually leads to the denouement. That threw me for a bit of a loop, as I had seen the movie before I read the book, and I was expecting the far more linear storytelling that the movie engaged in.

My impression of the characters were marred a little by my memory of their portrayal by famous Hollywood stars, and I found myself irritated by discrepancies between the actors and the characters. That, of course, isn’t Le Carré’s fault, though I do wonder if my mental vision of Smiley as being the quintessential cool and collected Englishman would’ve been different had I not seen Gary Oldman in the role first.

*

Sandman Slim and Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey (paranormal fantasy): 8/10

These two are the first two books in a series about James Stark, a talented magician who fell in with the magical equivalent of Hell’s Angels and their rather nasty business, got sent to hell to fend for his own for 11 years in some sort of demonoid gladiatorial system, and managed to claw his way back up to earth to wreak revenge.

These books were, in a word, fun. They’re quick, somewhat pulpy/trashy, and I could easily devour five of these in one sitting the way I could down five cans of Arizona Green Tea without coming up for air. There are lot of really great incidental elements to the story that are just clever and that make me chuckle. To wit: the use of Los Angeles as the corrupt epicenter where all the magical deadheads gather, the idea of angels collaborating with the FBI to keep an eye on amateur spellcasters, the conceit of the majority of movie producers having struck bargains with Lucifer in exchange for fame and fortune, the trope of the barman who doesn’t ask any questions even when demons invade the bar, and so on, and so on. These books have been compared to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files by some other reviewers, and I do see a lot of resemblance between the two, but I find Kadrey’s world to be a lot more compelling because they seem more grounded in satire and realism, or as realistic as a decapitated head sitting in a cabinet with legs can be.

As I told J, however, the books can occasionally be a little too proud of their devil-may-care-fuck-the-police-you-wouldn’t-believe-the-things-I’ve-seen vibe. I would say that that is the one major drawback of this series. Stark carries around a lot of bitterness, guilt, and self-loathing due to the events that led up to his spending 11 years in hell, and the points of the book where these emotions are explored are the weakest points in the book. He’s just not very believable in his repentance, and the story would be much better served were Stark more of a chaotic neutral type–enjoying mayhem for the heck of it.

That said, I’m definitely going to hunt down the 3rd book in the series. They’re not great literature, but how often do you find things that are just unmitigated fun?

*

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (mystery): 10/10

Oh man, how have I gone so long without reading Agatha Christie? This book was perfect from beginning to end. Poirot was Holmesian without being superior or condescending; the mystery actually built itself up and gave enough clues so that when the big reveal came, you didn’t feel like you had the rug pulled out from under you nor that it was obvious to the point of absurdity; the occasional interjection of other languages gave the international setting quite a charming atmosphere; and the characters were interesting and varied without being caricatures of themselves.

Often when you read classics that have passed on into canon you find yourself disappointed by them, since you’re so familiar the media that was inspired by the classic that the classic itself no longer seems original. That was not at all the case here, which I found pleasantly surprising. It’s a miracle I hadn’t somehow been spoiled  for the ending through some cultural reference or another, but I’m very glad it wasn’t. The beautiful ending, and the easy and matter-of-fact in which the book concluded, were both utterly masterful.

I read this book because I had Christie on my list of “classic writers that I really should read in order to be able to consider myself an educated snob”, a list which I alternate with the rest of my young-adult/cyberpunk/urban fantasy fare, but I will definitely be coming back to her.

*

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (mystery): 9/10

Dashiell Hammett was also on my list of classic-writers-to-read, and he is another writer I will be coming back to. The central mystery in The Thin Man was pretty much perfectly executed and explored. Nick and Nora Charles are central protagonists, and are utterly lovable as the retired detective and his wealthy heiress wife who solve a mystery for the heck of it. The Prohibition-era NYC setting in which the story is set was highly entertaining as well. The book was written in 1934, and as such carries a lot of cultural markers–general attitude, affectations of speech, presence of speakeasies, etc.–that were super interesting to observe.

A point is taken off because some of the other characters–most notably, the daughter of the man under investigation–are highly irritating human beings. But hey, my irritation at them just indicates Hammett’s skill in engaging me emotionally, right?

*

The Marriage Plot by Jeff Eugenides (contemporary, romance): 9.5/10

This book is only not a ’10’ because it seemed a little irreverent to place this at the same level as Agatha Christie. That said, I really, really, really enjoyed this book. The story revolves around three central characters who graduate Brown University in 1982 and follows their life for a year as they try to figure out their identities outside of the insular community of school. English-lit-major Madeleine is dating depressive genius biology student Leonard while attempting to work on her thesis involving classical romance literature and fending off the romantic overtures of one of her best friends, Mitchell, who goes backpacking across Europe and Asia following graduation in an effort to find himself.

In some ways, this book was tailor-made for me: I, like the central characters, find myself in that post-college malaise of questioning my decisions in my life and trying to figure out if the path I’m on is the path I should be on. (Hint: no.) I read far too much for my own good and dream of having the type of adventures that fictional characters have like Madeleine, I struggle with an overwhelming sense of wanderlust and needing to see more of the world than I have so far like Mitchell, and I alternate between moody resignation to fate, fierce exploration of philosophy, and explosive anger at the world like Leonard. In other words, I’m like every other 22-year-old who fancies themselves smart and/or aware.

If I had to pick a central theme for the book, I would say it’s about a conflict between a loyalty to the past and the desire to explore future potential. Like many contemporary lit novels, it’s very difficult to pin down an overarching plot; there are events that happen, there are plot drivers and resolutions, but there isn’t one clean arc that ties everything together. But that’s fine, too….not to belabour the point, but that’s kind of how life is. Things happen, and you only figure them out as you go.

There are a lot of easy traps that this book could have fallen into in terms of how things are resolved, and I’m very glad (and impressed) that they never fall into those traps. Jeff Eugenides is a pretty well-recognized author and has written, among other things, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, both of which were critically acclaimed. I read about fifty pages of Middlesex when it first came out and couldn’t get into it at all, but my enjoyment of The Marriage Plot means that I may well pick up The Virgin Suicides sometime in the near future.

I would consider this book to be required reading for cerebral would-be intellectuals in the throes of their Very Own Quarter-Life Crisis. Which should be pretty much, like, all of you.

*

Bossypants by Tina Fey (comedy, non-fiction): 6/10

I read an excerpt from this book and really enjoyed it, but the remainder of the book was kind of hit-and-miss. There were some great anecdotes about Tina Fey’s career and history and they were well-written, but I came away from it feeling like I could’ve been perfectly happy not reading it, either.

Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen deGeneres (comedy, non-fiction): 4/10

I get the feeling that the book this style was written in was meant to imitate Nora Ephron, to a certain degree. I’ve only read a few of Ephron’s comedy books, but they have a subtle tone of self-deprecation that can be quite charming when paired with its somewhat unfocused, anecdotal storytelling. This book, however, did not hold a topic for more than two and a half paragraphs, and never told a joke that wasn’t poking fun at itself. While I quite like deGeneres in other settings, I found this volume a bit of a disappointment….it was ridiculous and cartoonish in its attempt to prove that this is a comedy book, really guys, look at my stilts and red nose. If it weren’t for the fact that the book probably took me 90 minutes to read cover to cover, I doubt I would’ve finished it. A bit of a disappointment.

*

Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher (young adult, speculative fiction): 7/10

These two books comprise the Incarceron series, involving a somewhat dystopian future in which those-in-power have decided to engage in a social experiment by removing all undesireables from society and locking them in a prison named Incarceron, and preserving the rest of society in the Victorian era by using advanced technology to simulate the look and feel of that historical period. The main character is the daughter of the warden of Incarceron, and she begins to notice discrepancies in the official story and seeks to communicate with someone from within the prison.

There are a few very interesting elements here. For one, the basic premise of the setting means that you play with the kind of messed up and skewed power dynamics of the Victorian age while allowing for the type of science-fiction that would make Incarceron as an institution so, well, captivating. The conceit of Incarceron is that no one on the outside knows where it is or what the conditions are except for the warden, whereas from the inside it’s a sort of organic living Panopticon with some truly horrific elements that would not be out of place in a David Cronenberg film. There are themes of rebellion, of the importance of knowledge and research, of transcending your birth place, of social stagnation and decay…in other words, a lot of really great ingredients that should make for a great story.

That said, I found the execution of the series lacking. I liked the dualistic nature of the story with things advancing on the outside as well as on the inside, but I found that where the inner world of Incarceron was concerned, there wasn’t enough internal cohesion for it to fit into the grotesquely controlled outside world. I liked the idea of Sapphique–a mythical figure that the incarcerated see as their hope and salvation–but I found that the myth wasn’t sufficiently developed to serve as a believable impetus for the characters on the inside. I found the character development to be very inconsistent, and it seemed like actual progression in character development was often sacrificed in favour of cheap would-be-snappy dialogue. Some of the major plot points in both books seem like they came out of nowhere, where they could’ve been easily weaved throughout the rest of the story so as to be more believable. There are bits on the second book that seemed downright absurd.

In a way, my disappointment is testament to how good the writing was, because the books were good enough that I wanted them to be so much more than what they are. Not a bad read, especially if you’re not used to this type of dystopian fantasy YA stuff and don’t see the genre problems, but they had so much more potential.

*

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (satire, classic): 7/10

Apart from being required reading for every satirist and social commentator, Vanity Fair is also one of J’s favourite books, and I figured those were enough reasons to give this a whirl. I found it to be very dense reading, and there are a lot of digressions into the intricacies of the family tree of upper society that I found difficult to stay engaged in. It was pretty entertaining throughout, with imaginatively odious characters and scathing social commentary, but I was also pretty exasperated by some of the contrived predicaments that the characters found themselves in.

As the subtitle of this volume is “A novel without a hero” it should come as no surprise that the majority of the players in the story are highly unlikeable. Given that, it’s a miracle that Thackaray managed to keep me interested, though it did take me a whole two months to read, during which time I switched back and forth a lot between this and other, lighter fare. As is often the case with classics where the elaborate structure of the narrative prevent me from being fully immersed in the story, I recognize Thackeray’s skill and deftness, the social importance of the story, and its reasons for having prevailed for as long as it did, but I can’t say that it’s something I would enjoy coming back to.

*

The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket (young adult): 6/10

These are books 1 and 2 in the longrunning and popular favourite YA series A Series of Unfortunate Events. They’re really quick reads, and there’s quite a bit of clever wordplay and I enjoyed some of the narrative conventions that Lemony Snicket–whose real name is Daniel Handler–engages in. That said, these books are very solidly YA, in that they’re definitely written for a specific age group and audience. They have some jokes for the adults who are, perhaps, reading the story to their children, but little more than that. Unlike the best of YA, which defines itself by the ages of their protagonists rather than the maturity of the language and which will have many elements to be pondered over regardless of the reader’s age, these books seem like they aspire to be little more than distractions for restless 11-year-olds.

I recognize Handler’s skill in satire, and I’ve enjoyed some of his non-fiction writings, but I doubt I’ll be going further with these books.

*

There are also a few books I started, but did not finish:

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (horror, contemporary): I read about 20% of it. The stream-of-consciousness narrative style was fantastic, and the obsessive focus on brand consumption and financial status are eerily reminiscent of some of the vibe that I got in business school. That said, I only realized 20% into the book that this book was called American Psycho because it involves very graphic descriptions of some very gruesome murders carried out against women, and, well, I didn’t feel like getting nightmares of being decapitated by the next banker I happened to chat to in a club.

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice (gothic horror): This is the second book in Anne Rice’s famous series that established her in the vampire canon, if such a thing exists. I read Interview with the Vampire a few years ago and quite enjoyed it, but only got through about half of The Vampire Lestat before I lost my momentum. I think it’s because there was a pretty extended sequence about the vampire Armand, whom I found to be a much less compelling character than Lestat, and I just couldn’t abide by his whining about how the old ways were no more. Give me a break, you traditionalist dweeb.

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (young adult, fantasy): This is book one of the Bartimaeus trilogy that was really popular with the young adult world a while back, and they’re about a precocious magical teen prodigy who summons the demon Bartimaeus and attempts to control him. I read about a third of this book and just lost interest. The tone was that sort of forced-nonchalance that few writers can pull off well, and I just didn’t find any of the characters–or any of the fabricated urgency of the plot points–compelling at all. I might go back to it at some point, but I doubt it.

*

Aaaand that’s a wrap. That was only 3900 words and only took 2.5 hours. Now I remember why I never let myself write when I have work to do…whoops.

Hey, The Millions, call me!

2 replies
  1. Matthew (@thebibliofreak) says:

    Good choice on American Psycho – the violence just gets worse the further through it you get!

    My review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

  2. John Verdon says:

    So…. did you meet your deadline???? You leave us hanging. :)

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