Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The Natural by Bernard Malamud is one of those "literary sports novels". Hooray! I never read sports books (except for this time in my childhood where I read a bunch of Dan Gutman's Baseball Card Adventures), but the promise of this one having literary quality enticed me.

The "natural" of the title is Roy Hobbs, a 34-year-old ballplayer who joins the (fictional) professional team the New York Knights. He's insanely talented, and the novel details his amazing season where he brings the Knights out of last place, along with meditations on love and guilt and "doing the right thing".

The edition that I read had a quotation from Time's review of the book, that being "[a] preposterously readable story about life", and I wholeheartedly agree. I would find myself doing the "just one more page" nonsense over and over and over. One of the reasons I hate sports books is how boring the scenes in which the sport is being played is written (when J.K. Rowling announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have no Quidditch scenes, I must say I was happy about it). It's way more fun to watch someone hit a ball than it is to read about it, but Malamud did a great job. I found the baseball scenes engaging and interesting.

If the aforementioned literary thinking about our actions and love isn't enough, it might help to do some research on the Fisher King, the knight Perceval and the Holy Grail. There are (intentionally) strong parallels between the stories, but I felt like it didn't do much to alter my perception of the story. One of my complaints about the novel was that Roy Hobbs is a frustrating main character, but his character flaws are important in the understanding of the nature of a tragic hero.

Overall a good book, both literarily and in its sportswriting, with some occasional flab in the form of flashbacks and inner monologues that are perhaps intended to help us understand Roy's personality but often left me confused about their inclusion (including a scene involving his mother, a cat and a bathtub toward the end of the novel).

My rating: 3.5/5
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Monday, July 23, 2012

Aura (Carlos Fuentes)

Aura is the first book I've ever read in its original Spanish, which is very exciting for me but probably less so for everyone else. That being said, I don't want to sound like I understood everything perfectly because about halfway through, I stopped bothering to translate every word I didn't recognize. So if I misunderstood something, sorry.

Anyway, our story is that of a young man, Felipe Montero, who answers an ad in the newspaper looking for someone fluent in French. He answers, and meets an old woman named Consuelo who lives with her young, beautiful niece Aura. Consuelo wants Felipe to translate her dead husband's papers, and Felipe agrees because he is transfixed with Aura.

What follows is a spiral into violence and passion and magical realism (at least I think it's magical realism--I'm not an expert on the subject, having only read One Hundred Years of Solitude). I don't want to spoil it, although I have to admit that I wasn't shocked, but I'm not sure if I was supposed to be. The story is fascinating, and I loved watching Fuentes lock all of the pieces together and then step back to let it unfold.

The language of the story is beautiful and the narrative is unique for using second-person narration to put the reader in the place of Felipe Montero. The action alternates between present tense and future tense, which, when combined with the strange events and the ethereal language, give the entire novella the feel of a twisted fever dream. It's a delicious effect.

Carlos Fuente's Aura is an enchanting tale of the blurred lines between fantasy and reality; it's a great, short read for any fan of contemporary Latin American literature.

My rating: 4/5
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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Shadow Thieves (Anne Ursu)

Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves (first in a trilogy called The Cronus Chronicles) was published in 2006. I bought the book when it first came out. I have owned this book for six years and never opened it. I decided that was a little ridiculous, so sat down to read it. I think part of why it took me so long was that in 2005, the first Percy Jackson and the Olympians book was released, and I was busy enjoying those and was perhaps nervous that this book was going to be too similar.

I worried for nothing. Sure, both The Lightning Thief and The Shadow Thieves came out around the same time, both are kid's series with Greek mythology, and both have a variant of the word 'thief' in the title, but the books were different enough that I could enjoy them for different reasons. The characters are charming, the writing is clean and focused and snarkily, sarcastically humorous. I thought I would get tired of Ursu's funny jabs after the first two or three, but they consistently remained entertaining. I appreciated their presence.

Here's the plot: Charlotte Mielswetzski, the grumpy, fire-haired protagonist of our story, finds out that her cousin Zee will be coming to live with her. He's fleeing England after all of the young kids around him mysteriously grow sick, exhausted and unable to move. When he arrives in America, the same thing happens. The two take it upon themselves to solve the problem and discover a plot that involves a shadow army and a coup of the Underworld. The action never comes off as intense or epic (like battle scenes in Percy Jackson), but it suits the book. I would have been put off if we were suddenly put through a huge, violent battle with lots of slaughter. It wouldn't have fit the tone of the book.

Overall, this was an enjoyably light-hearted book with a smattering of Greek mythology to make it interesting. Young fans of Percy Jackson will likely enjoy it.

My Rating: 4/5
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The Enchantress (Michael Scott)

Ugh. In my younger years, I had a real thing for fantasy. It's almost all I would ever read. Which is sad, because there are so many beautiful books out there that contain not a whit of magic or swordplay. The thing about fantasy books is that they often come in series. It's never enough to be one book with a self-contained adventure. It has to be three books, or five, or seven. And sometimes, it's okay. Usually it isn't, because what an author can accomplish in two or three books is bloated and dragged out over twice or three times as many books. And even when the series turns into a trainwreck, I feel obligated to finish what I've started. This is a perfect example.

The Enchantress is book six in Michael Scott's YA fantasy series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. It's the final book, and so I don't really want to/am not sure that I can sum up the events of the previous five (here's the Wikipedia article for the first book with a pretty thorough plot summary), but here's my best effort. Imagine the modern world, except now some gods (Elders) and mythological beasts exist and have existed for a very long time. Throw in historical figures (the titular Nicholas Flamel, a famous alchemist you may know from Harry Potter; Joan of Arc; Shakespeare) that are granted immortality or gain it themselves by whatever means. Add a plot by some of these gods (the Dark Elders) to destroy the world we live in and allow their paradise of 10,000 years ago (Danu Talis AKA Atlantis) to continue on. Josh and Sophie, identical twins, discover that they are the "Twins of Legend" in a prophecy that says "one will save the world and one will destroy it".

I picked up the first book because (as I mentioned) I love fantasy, and I really enjoyed the idea of seeing famous people from history and mythological gods and goddesses. The first book was actually enjoyable, too. But as the series progressed, the books got worse and worse. The cast of characters grew unnecessarily large, to the point where I was having a hard time keeping track or empathizing with everyone. The story decided to become unnecessarily laden with plot twists. The writing is bad; this one wasn't a progressive problem, because I noticed all the way in book one how Scott likes to drop the same phrases, like "the angles and planes of [character's] face weren't quite human" or "they were speaking in a dialect that hadn't been heard on Earth for 300 years" over and over. This book in particular grated on me, and there was a laughably bad scene where a bunch of immortal humans (including Shakespeare) take turns reciting their favorite Shakespeare lines or monologues. I guess "yay" for trying to give your book some culture?

The book's climax features a lot of battle (and I hate written fight scenes, hence my distaste for Lord of the Rings), one of which ends in a bunch of deaths that are meaningless, partially because of the huge character cast I mentioned earlier and partially because they are at times illogical, and another that ends in an incredibly confusing manner ("suddenly this, and then this, and then suddenly this other thing SOMETHING IS HAPPENING BUT IT ISN'T EXPLAINED IT JUST HAPPENS and now the end"), but I'm not sure if I missed something or if something was left out (I know, this is the second review where I said that; I promise I'm usually a thorough reader). The only positive thing I have to say about the book is that, despite how annoyingly repetitive some of the phrasing is and despite the occasional lack of explanation, the book is quite the page turner.

If you're a big fan of fantasy and adventure, I think you'll really enjoy the series. Otherwise, this is definitely a safe skip.

My Rating: 1.5/5
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Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms (Lissa Evans)

I saw Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms on the shelf at my library a few weeks ago and each time I returned, I felt myself drawn to it. I couldn't resist the beautiful black-and-white visuals (I can't find the name of an artist anywhere in the book, but shout out to you for your beautiful chapter illustrations and the gorgeous cover) and the blurb sounded promising. The book is small, so I figured it was worth the risk. Even if I didn't like it, it's only 270 pages.

I definitely liked it. Our main character, Stuart (the book was originally published in the U.K. under the title Small Change for Stuart), moves back to his father's hometown and accidentally uncovers a series of clues that will lead him to the workshop his great-uncle (a famous stage illusionist by the name of Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten), which promises to be filled with amazing wonders and illusions of all kinds.

I was really tickled by this book. The blurb promises "the quirkiest of characters", and I certainly wasn't let down in that department: audacious triplets, a bumbling magician-in-training and a man overly preoccupied with factoids and crossword puzzles are just some of our cast, and I enjoyed every moment of dialogue and interaction Stuart had with these characters. 

I had a few issues with the plot, namely that Tony Horten's trail of clues were put down decades ago (I don't know that we're given an exact number of years, but I think it's safe to assume at least thirty). It seems implausible that all of the parameters necessary for Stuart to reach the end of the trail would still exist and function properly. At best, however, it's a minor issue, and I didn't have trouble suspending my disbelief to go along with it. The book is a fun little ride, and I'm looking forward to book two (out in September!).

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms is a clever novel that will delight young readers, especially fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Invention of Hugo Cabret (I was reminded of both on several occasions, especially TMBS). 

My Rating: 4/5
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Divergent (Veronica Roth)

I must confess, the first time I heard about Divergent, I may have rolled my eyes. One of the things that really tires me about young adult books is how trendy they are: if a book belonging to one niche becomes popular, suddenly the market is flooded with those kinds of books. Harry Potter saw the rise of books about witches and sorcerers and medieval dragons and such. Twilight birthed loads of vampire/werewolf books (I still get upset every time I see that Barnes & Noble has a "Teen Paranormal Romance" section separate from the other YA books).

Ever since the success of The Hunger Games, I've seen a stream of nonstop dystopian fiction.So when I saw that Roth's Divergent was another futuristic-society-gone-wrong book, I felt like it was safe to pass it up. I read The Hunger Games, I'll pass. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of dystopias because it can allow for some really unique and enjoyable world-building, but at some point, enough is enough.

And then the book won the Goodreads Choice Award for favorite book of 2011, and I was paying attention. The book has amassed over 100,000 ratings in 14 months, and its average rating is 4.39 (as of my writing this post). Such popularity and positivity is not something to be ignored, so I decided to read the book.

I came away (slightly) disappointed. Set in a Chicago of the future, society has been divided into five factions, each favoring a particular trait: bravery (Dauntless), honesty (Candor), selflessness (Abnegation), intelligence (Erudite) and kindness (Amity). When every child is sixteen, they must take an aptitude test to determine which faction best suits them, and then they are allowed to choose which faction to join. Something that wasn't clear to me while reading was whether the aptitude test results dictated your choice. Does getting a Candor result mean you must join or stay in Candor, or can you switch to Amity despite the fact that you didn't test well for that faction? I'm not sure if I just missed something while reading or if something wasn't explained. Oh well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

I am always on a Quest to Read Great Literature, and back when I first decided to embark on this quest (in 2009), I found a list from The Guardian of books you absolutely must read as compiled by British librarians (article here). One of the books was The Alchemist, by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Finally, three years later, I got around to reading it, and I was incredibly disappointed. I confess, part of it was my fault. I didn't know going into it that the book was written as an undercover schmucky self-help book disguised as a fable/parable.

We're introduced to a teenage shepherd who wanders around Spain with his flock of sheep. He has a strange dream about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt and then meets a mysterious man who tells him that the only way to be truly happy in life is to realize his "Personal Legend" (one of the things that irritated me more than it should have was the constant capitalization of "Personal Legend", like it's some big important proper noun), and his legend is to seek this treasure he dreamed about.

What ensues is the said journey, full of discovery and wisdom and knowledge, and the whole thing is just aggravating. Several times on the journey things happen that force the shepherd to stop; he gets robbed, there's a war in the desert, etc. Every time an excuse comes up for him to avoid fulfilling his Personal Legend, he tries to take it. Which is perhaps the point, but most infuriating is that his Personal Legend isn't one that's necessarily difficult to achieve: show up to the Pyramids, get treasure, be rich. I'd understand if he kept quitting because his PL is difficult, like climbing a big mountain or building a home for every homeless person on Earth. But it's not particularly challenging, so our shepherd hero just comes out looking wimpy and whiny.

But he isn't the only annoying character. The girl that the shepherd meets and falls in love with at the oasis camp is agonizing to read. He tries to use their relationship as an excuse not to leave for the Pyramids, but she says something about how she's a "woman of the desert" and women of the desert must wait for their men. Why doesn't this girl (I think her name is Fatimah?) have her own Personal Legend where she breaks the mold of the anti-feminist society she lives in and go with her lover? There's also the Englishman (that's what he's called: "the Englishman"), the Alchemist, and the mysterious man I mentioned earlier who may or may not have been king of the angels or something similarly ludicrous.

The Alchemist fails as an interesting novel and simultaneously doesn't even manage to be a good self-help book. There's a lot of talk about omens and the "language of the universe", and how the universe conspires to allow all of us to reach our Personal Legends if only we pay attention to the signs all around us and learn to speak the unspoken language of the world. It's stupid. The message I took away? You should pursue your dreams and your destiny but should also rely on arbitrarily-determined signs in nature (there's a part where the shepherd sees birds flying above him and mysteriously knows that it's a sign that the oasis camp where he's staying is going to be attacked the next day...yeah right). I thought the point of self-help books was to motivate you to make an effort in your life, but I felt like Coelho wanted us to rely more on chance than ourselves.

This was a very disappointing book, and I rolled my eyes too many times to count.

Rating: 1/5
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The Red House (Mark Haddon)

I read one of Mark Haddon's previous novels (his absolutely wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), so I was looking forward to this new book. The Red House tells the story of an English family on vacation in the countryside in the titular red house. The narrative switches between all eight characters, and what ensues is a week of dramatic realizations and revelations as the family struggles to bring itself together.

Richard and Angela are brother and sister, estranged after the death of their mother. Richard, a wealthy, recently-remarried doctor, invites his sister and her family on vacation in an attempt to mend the bond and grow closer. Angela, who took care of her mother as she declined, holds a serious grudge against Richard, almost never visited their mother and was still her favored child. There's a lot of wild drama: an affair, hallucinations, and a conflict between religion and sexuality, to name a few.

A lot of the negative reviews that initially put me off from reading the book focused on how confusing the narrative switches were, but Haddon does a great job plotting out the thoughts and feelings of these characters, and his writing sparkles as he does so. Each switch is presented just by giving a line break, no new heading or boldfaced character name. We're left to figure it out, but I never had much trouble, so I'm not sure what the fuss was about. I didn't find the characters to be unoriginal or overly similar, but dynamic and separate. Each of the family members provides us a different facet of seeing their world, of observing the family. We want the best for this clan, but it's fun to watch them fall apart.

There were some times when it was apparent that Haddon was overreaching, when we're presented with snippets of poetry or stream-of-consciousness prose that is not attached to anyone in particular. Moments like these (brief, and not overly common) frustrated me a little because the book would have been fine without them. One thing I don't like is an author who can create something wonderful and then feels that it must be embellished and prettified to the point that the work is worse off, but fortunately Mark Haddon didn't go to extremes with this abstract approach.

The Red House is slim (~275 pages), and it's fast read. Great for a summer evening, especially if you love family dramas (it's my guilty pleasure).

My rating: 3.5/5
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