Capsule reviews of all the books I read in May…and there were more than a few:
ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes
An individual with no caregiving experience is hired to look after a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic who has all but given up on life. Eventually, the two overcome their mutual uncertainty to form a bond, experiencing happiness, adventure, and, ultimately, love. This, by the way, is the premise of Intouchables, a great French movie that came out in 2011. It’s also the premise for this maudlin novel released in 2012.
I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells
15 year old John Wayne Cleaver is obsessed with serial killers. He is so obsessed, in fact, that he studies them religiously in order to figure out how to avoid becoming one. But when a body turns up and it looks like a serial killer has struck close to him, things become a lot more complicated for John. I LOVED the first 100 pages of this book. It was darkly humorous and set up a great premise that…crashed and burned with the revelation that the murderer is actually a supernatural entity. Huh?? This book had the makings of a ghoulishly clever crime novel and character study but, for some reason, morphs into a silly monster hunt. Hugely disappointing.
THE INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest
A city moves along a railroad track in constant, laborious progress, attempting to keep up with something called “the optimum” – or risk losing pace and falling victim to a gravitational field that has warped space and time. This is a truly bizarre work of science fiction that jumps between multiple narrative styles in telling a story that is both grounded in its characters yet intellectually and creatively provocative in its conceit. At times, I felt like I was reading Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow - on acid.
A FALL OF MOONDUST by Arthur C. Clarke
A cruiser traveling on the lunar surface is lost in The Sea of Thirst, buried deep in the dust. The cruiser’s occupants try to maintain their spirits as a rescue mission is mounted and life support systems begin to fail. A hard SF version of those Irwin Allen disaster features from the 70’s. Classic but staid and, at times, dated and silly.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
Against the backdrop of a mysterious circus, two young magicians must square off in an age-old duel fueled by the rivalry of their respective fathers. But matters are complicated by romantic entanglements. A good book certain to appeal to fans of the genre, but I inevitably find magic-themed stories incredibly frustrating. Unlike, say, SF that sets down technological parameters as to what can and cannot be achieved, in magic-based narratives all bets are off. Shits happens, people die and then, ultimately, it’s all upended because…magic! Ho hum.
THE LIONS OF AL-RASSANby Guy Gavriel Kay
Moorish Spain (or a fictional version thereof) is the backdrop of this sweeping historical fantasy involving sieges, warfare, diabolical plots, courtly intrigue, crosses, double-crosses, friendship, and romance. At heart of it all are three protagonists whose backgrounds and alliances lead them on intersecting paths both heroic and tragic. Brilliant world-building and wonderfully nuanced characters. My introduction to the works of author Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Highly recommended.
THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL by George Saunders
A nonsense novella about the fictitious principalities of Inner and Outer Horner. It’s a silly and ultimately unsatisfying political and social satire that feels like it was written over the course of a drink-fueled evening.
THE WALL OF THE SKY, THE WALL OF THE EYE by Jonathan Lethem
I was looking forward to this one but was left disappointed by a collection of SF-themed stories containing some interesting ideas but not much in the way of cohesive, self-contained narratives.
THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes
A serial killer travels through time, dispatching of his victims: young women he refers to as “shining girls”. Finally, a time travel novel that makes sense. Sort of. An interesting premise and no real faults in time travel logic – but no real answers either. Why is this house a time machine? What motivates the serial killer to murder these women? What makes them “shine”? They’re developing this book for television so maybe the t.v. series will have the answers. But probably not.
THE ROAD TO RECKONING by Robert Lautner
You can almost smell the gun smoke, sweat, and campfire in this gritty Western character piece about a young boy, orphaned after his father’s murder, who enlists the help of an ornery bastard to get him home. Smart and surprisingly absorbing. A great read.
SALVATION OF A SAINT by Keigo Higashino
I went in expecting a page-turning crime thriller but ended up with an awkward and plodding mystery that isn’t really a mystery at all because we know whodunit from the start. The body of the book is just an extended conversation of deduction. Unlike the author’s previous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, there’s little in the way of actual suspense or narrative build. In the end, when all is revealed, the details of the murder are so implausible they’re almost laughable. I suspect that this novel may have also suffered from the quality of its translation.
PERFUME by Patrick Susskind
In 18th century France, a child is born without scent. Because of this strange, physiological trait, he grows up a social pariah. But, eventually, he finds his calling – first as a brilliant perfumer, and later as a diabolical serial killer who uses scent to manipulate those around him. This book has all the makings of a unique, engaging novel but its promise is undone by a thoroughly detestable protagonist. I’m not saying that our serial-killing main character must necessarily possess traits that make him sympathetic to the reader (a la Dexter or Hannibal Lecter), but it would be nice to get inside his head at some point and learn a little about him. Instead, it’s all surface. The corpses pile up. Our a creepy freak of a protagonist bemoans his scentless genitals. And it all culminates in one of the stupidest endings ever committed to print.
Would have made a fine short story.
SCHRODER by Amity Gaige
In the heat of a custody battle, a desperate father takes his daughter on an ill-advised extended road trip. It’s one of several big errors in judgement that lead our protagonist down an inevitably heartbreaking path. The fairly straightforward premise belies a surprising complexity in this touching and tragic tale. On the surface, not “the type of book” I’d enjoy – but I was thoroughly engrossed.
THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas
At a family gathering, a guest slaps a child not his own. A lawsuit and strained relationships ensue in this comprehensive look at the ties that bind one extended family. This book certainly does a masterful job of pushing the reader’s buttons. I’ve heard that many mothers who read the book were outraged and extremely sympathetic to the child and his mother. I, on the other hand, had no sympathy for the spoiled brat and his loopy, smothering mom. In fact, I had little to no sympathy for any of the multitudinous characters who people this novel. They’re all beyond flawed and well into “reprehensible” territory. I should have seen it coming when, only one page in, I was already annoyed with a character who takes advantage of his wife being away by: “not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend.” Come on. Regardless of company kept, what kind of neanderthal doesn’t brush their teeth all weekend? A consistently irritating read.
AUTHORITY Jeff VanderMeer
The second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy picks up where things left off in Annihilation – sort of. The focus has shifted to the shadowy government agency that has been overseeing the various expeditions into Area X. Our protagonist, John Rodrigues (nicknamed “Control”), assumes command of the operation and attempts to make sense of the baffling leads in the ongoing investigation: secret notes, a bizarre video, and an uncooperative witness (the biologist from the first book). He begins to suspect that Area X has broken containment and gained a foothold in our reality, the realization dawning on the reader in a simultaneous slow, creeping burn of a narrative. The subversive terror of the first book is ratcheted up, building to a disquieting climax that left me in great anticipation for the final instalment.
GREAT NORTH ROAD by Peter F. Hamilton
The murder of a member of the powerful North “family of clones” triggers an investigation that peels the onion on a dark conspiracy, ancestral secrets, covert weaponry, and a desperate alien sentience. More masterful world-building in this epic narrative that jumps around different points of view, some (the military hunt for an otherworldly predator) more interesting than others (the official police investigation). It’s an interesting, though at times overwrought ride that culminates in a resolution that will please fans of scifi, fans of clever thrillers less so.
NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE 2014 edited by Kij Johnson
A selection of this past year’s Nebula award winners and nominees showcases a varied mix of stories and excerpts. My favorites were the more character-oriented entries: “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall”,a Nancy Kress eco-thriller about a group of post-apocalypstic survivors who travel back in time, kidnapping children to help ensure humanity’s survival, and “Christmas Inn” by Gene Wolf, a deceptive, deep and textured tale about a struggling family hosting some strange guests on Christmas Eve. Some big, provocative ideas.
FROSTBORN by Lou Anders
Award-winning editor Lou Anders first novel is a Norse-inspired, adventure-fueled tale for young fantasy enthusiasts. Karn, a young farmer-to-be, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Thianna, a half-giantess, to take on undead forces, an ancient dragon, troublesome trolls, an opportunistic uncle, and more! If you’re looking to inspire your child to follow in your Martin/Eddings/Jordan-loving footsteps, then this book is a great place to start.
FUTURE BABBLE by Dan Gardner
Author Dan Gardner looks at our innate desire for order and how it drives us to seek pattern in a chaotic universe. Experts, it turns out, are no more accurate than the flip of a coin, and their popularity has less to do with their predicive successes (or lack thereof) than showmanship. An interesting if not altogether unsurprising read.
THE TROOP by Nick Cutter
A field trip on an isolated island takes a horrific turn for a group of young boys when their scout leader welcomes an emaciated stranger into their camp. It’s a horror version of Lord of Flies that is at turns harrowing, humorous, and thoroughly engaging. Wonderfully written. It’s heads and shoulders above most novels in the genre.
SWORDS AND DEVILTRY by Fritz Leiber
The first book in one of my very favorite fantasy series starts off with a more of a determined whimper than a bang, offering an interesting, dark, at times surprisingly somber account of the early lives of our two heroes and their eventual meeting. There are flashes of fun throughout, especially in the dynamic between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, initially as strangers crossing paths, then as fast friends over drinks and, finally, as allies united in revenge. Not as strong as the ensuing instalments, but solid storytelling nevertheless, holding the promise of greatness to come.
WALKING IN CIRCLES BEFORE LYING DOWN by Merrill Markoe
Our protagonist is a romantic loser whose increasingly pathetic existence is dealt a curveball the day her dog begins to talk to her. And not just her dog. She soon realizes she can hold conversations with other dogs as well. And what do all these dogs have to say? Oh, you know, pretty much what you’d expect a dog to say if you’ve read any of those anthromorphic animal comic strips. They offer “hilarious” insights into relationships and life, are able to recognize and identify an Oasis song but, on the other hand, mysteriously have no understanding of tears or death. The opportunity for “funny” dialogue trumps reason – but, hey, it’s a book about talking dogs so I suppose I shouldn’t expect internal logic to prevail. The writing style reads like David Sedaris lite.
Enjoyed the Look Who’s Talking movies? Well, you may enjoy this book as well.
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin
The first three books rank among my Top 10 Fantasy Reads, so it’s been incredibly disappointing to see the wheels fall off this once great series. Back in the day, it used to be a true page turner, building suspense from chapter to chapter, offering unexpected twists and shocking turns. Now, the individual stories drag out as more and more characters are added to the increasingly complex mix. Two-thirds of the way through this book, all those characters reached critical mass and I began to lose my patience as well as interest.
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman
A suspenseful horror thriller that is undermined by some minor inconsistencies in logic. A series of bizarre murder-suicides in Russia pique the media’s interest, but when these horrific incidents begin to proliferate and start striking closer to home, the world descends into a blind panic. Rumour spreads that people are being driven insane by the sight of some mysterious otherworldly entities and, soon, people have retreated into their homes, covering up their windows, refusing to open their eyes if they venture outdoors. The novel opens on our protagonist, Malorie, as she attempts to safeguard the lives of two young children, then jumps back in time to, five years earlier, when a pregnant Malorie seeks refuge with a group of survivors. We hop back and forth, between the past and present, and the twin stories unfold in spellbinding fashion. Still, issues arise when you stop to reflect. People seem to connect these strange murders to a visual cue way too quickly and with little evidence to support this theory. Animals (dogs, wolves) are seemingly unaffected by the sight of these creatures and yet, later in the novel, ARE affected. Perhaps oddest of all is Malorie’s decision to name the children Boy and Girl rather than giving them proper names. Minor quibbles aside, however, it’s a helluva page-turner.
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