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Double book review: The Halo Effect; Crimes Against A Book Club

The Halo EffectThe Halo Effect by Anne D. LeClaire

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An airplane read.

Predictable but enjoyable story, with no real surprises. Nicely written and well-drawn characters. I especially liked Will’s struggle to reconcile his lack of faith with his acceptance of the commission to paint saints for the church.

 

Crimes Against a Book ClubCrimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What do you do when you have bills you can’t possibly pay, a degree in chemistry, and a fabulous best friend with an entree into a high-society book club? You make an “ultra-exclusive” anti-aging face cream out of over-the-counter drug store lotions and, um, cocaine, and convince these women they can’t live without it.

An absolutely darling confection of a novel that I read on an airplane, smiling the whole time. Recommended for women, best friends, book club members, and anyone else who enjoys a good laugh and poking a stick at social pretensions.

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Book review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we first meet Holly Sykes, it’s the mid-80s and she is a sullen teenager who discovered her boyfriend, with whom she had planned to live after running away from home, cheated on her with her “best mate”. When we last meet her, it’s the 2040s, and she’s trying to figure out a way to save her granddaughter from a living hell. In between is a ramble through the world of late 20th, early 21st Century, peopled with narcissistic, entitled English schoolmates and other people of consequence, some of whom manage to grow up and become decent people, but most of whom don’t. And lurking behind the scenes, manipulating people and events, are creatures with special abilities who snatch people with special abilities out of the world and use them for…nourishment? Entertainment? All of the above. It sounds like a mess, but it’s glorious and frightening and altogether wonderful.

The Bone Clocks is my second David Mitchell novel. Cloud Atlas was the first. Often when I read a second novel by a new-to-me author, I’m disappointed because it doesn’t match up to the excellence of the first novel I read. Not so in this case. The Bone Clocks is every bit as magical as Cloud Atlas. I’ll definitely be getting more David Mitchell from the library.

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Book review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ulysses for those who can’t be bothered to struggle with Joycean prose.

My goodness, how this novel dragged through the minutiae of Dr. Perowne’s Saturday: from his contemplation of a plane crash in the pre-dawn sky through his preparations to leave for a squash game to a fender-bender on a crowded street to his day at the hospital to the evening events stemming from a chance encounter earlier that day and, finally, to contemplating the pre-dawn sky once again. Full circle. Full stop.

It’s exhausting. Beautifully written, but must be read with a certain determination of purpose and gritting of teeth.

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Book review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Franks

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the PeopleListen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.

*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *

I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.

Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”

Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.

The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.

Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.

It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.

Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.

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Book review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed feelings about this one.

Lancelot, known to his intimates as Lotto, and Mathilde meet when they are in their early early 20s and baffle everyone who knows them — who knows Lotto in particular — by quickly marrying. The novel follows them throughout their married life, from dead broke college students to successful and well-to-do middle age and beyond, first from Lotto’s perspective (Fates), and then from Mathilde’s (Furies).

Good things:

  • The language is gorgeous.
  • After having been married for quite some time myself, I’d say this a reasonably well-drawn and not entirely implausible study of a particular marriage, although not mine.
  • I rather liked both Lotto and Mathilde for the majority of the story. The two of them reminded me in some ways of a married couple I know: a pair who met and married very young; who, to all appearances, are still passionately in love with each other after all these years; who wholeheartedly support each other in all their endeavors, business, artistic, and otherwise. (Special note just in case one or both of them might happen to read this book AND this review: By no means do I mean to imply that either keeps the kinds of secrets that make up the crux of this novel. In fact, I’d be shocked to the core to discover such a thing.)
  • I loved the chronological synopses of Lotto’s plays as a device to show the passage of time. And the synopses themselves made me wish these were actual stage productions I could see performed somewhere.

Quibbles (some spoilers ahead if you haven’t read this): Continue reading “Book review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff”

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Book reviews: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Oh, a family saga stretching out over decades. If I’d known that, I probably wouldn’t have picked this book. Well-written, at least.”

That was my reaction upon reaching the end of the first section and jumping forward a decade or so in the second section. Pretty well sums up the book for me, even after finishing it.

One summer, shortly before World War I, George Sawle brings his school chum Cecil Valance home with him for a weekend. (One must use the phrase “school chum” because this IS England after all, and an upper-class Edwardian England, at that.) Cecil is a user and a player, as the astute reader will recognize at once. He’s also a poet, albeit not a particularly good one, but one whose good looks, personal charm, and social graces entice his audience to overlook the banality of his art. This brief summer visit results in a poem that somehow manages to transcend its author’s limitations; and the circumstances that led to the creation of this poem resonate through the decades that follow.

If, like me, you take an instant dislike to young Cecil, the adulation that follows through the rest of the novel (especially in Part 2, the immediate aftermath of WWI) may be annoying. Push through it, though, and pay attention to the damage this young man caused. Actions have consequences, lies beget lies, and some lies and consequences don’t reveal themselves until much, much later.

An engaging read.

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Book review: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

The Magician's Land (The Magicians, #3)The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anti-hero, magician, and failed monarch Quentin Coldwater is back in New York, trying to make sense of life after Fillory. Some months after being expelled from his kingdom, in a last-ditch attempt to earn a living, Quentin takes a job with a band of other “renegade” magicians. Their assignment: to retrieve a magical object from a pair of thieves. Said magical object leads Quentin and his cohorts on a merry and dangerous chase. Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot and Janet embark upon a quest of their own. Fillory, they are told, is dying, and they must find a sacred object of their own to save their land from utter destruction. These disparate storylines inevitably coincide, with some unexpected results and the return of a character or two we thought lost forever.

To get the best feel for this series, all three books (the other two titles are The Magicians and The Magician King) should be read one right after the other. It’s much easier to follow Quentin’s evolution as a character: from a whiny self-involved teenager to a 30-year-old man who makes a bad decision and does his best to make up for it. He’s not a saint by any means — and will never be one — but Quentin eventually acquires a little humility and grace and becomes a decent human being. That’s a satisfactory conclusion to this story all by itself.

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Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barry Fairbrother, city councilman of the small English village of Pagford, dies at the beginning of this book, and everything we learn about him is filtered through the eyes of the people who knew him — with the single exception of his wife; everything we learn about her is also filtered through the people who know her. It’s an interesting way to construct a story: the two individuals at the center at the entire plot have no say in how they’re perceived by the reader. I suspect that if Barry and his widow Mary could speak for themselves, we’d have an entirely different story.

At any rate, Barry’s unexpected death leaves a “casual vacancy” on the city council. Said vacancy quickly becomes a hotly-contested seat in a hastily-called special election. A zoning decision hinges on the outcome: Barry and his allies had been fighting to keep the slum-ridden “The Fields” connected to Pagford while other council members had been equally adamant about cutting the neighborhood loose and giving it back to a neighboring township to better preserve the beauty and quality of their fair city.

Said beauty and quality aside, Pagford is an English Peyton Place filled with backstabbing, infidelity, and unrequited love. During the run-up to and aftermath of this election, vicious rivalries erupt, families and relationships fall apart, teenagers rebel in spectacular and destructive fashion, and further tragedy strikes down the innocent.

An engaging read, well-written, and genuinely shocking in some parts. Recommended.

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Book review: The Innocence Device by William Kowalski

The Innocence DeviceThe Innocence Device by William Kowalski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the near future, the United States is divided into prisons, and the majority of the men in the country — especially men of color — are prisoners. The majority of the women serve as guards. People are sentenced to prison for the most minor of infractions committed as children, and then sentence after sentence is piled on top of the already-incarcerated individual for things like insubordination (i.e., talking back to a guard), theft (i.e., taking an extra food allotment), or any number of other potential crimes. Here’s the rub, though: virtually everything is a crime. This is “zero tolerance” run wild.

Within the prison, a hierarchy has evolved that determines where one lives and what sort of privileges one may receive. Our hero, 24-year-old Chago, is a poor laborer whose only goal involves seeing his son (by one of the prison guards) as often as he can. When the warden of the prison announces the invention of new technology that can determine one’s innocence or guilt, Chago is eager to step through the Innocence Device. He knows he didn’t do anything really wrong — in fact, he’s not entirely sure why he’s in prison; he only knows he was about six or seven when he was first sentenced — and he’s certain the Innocence Device will set him free. Alas, all is not as it seems, and when a prison riot begins, Chago’s entire world is thrown into chaos.

Great premise, right? It’s why I signed up for this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Sadly, the writing itself failed to live up to that premise. This short novella — hardly more than a short story, really — can’t seem to make up its mind whether it was written for an adult or a YA audience. The language is simple, perhaps written at about a fifth- or sixth-grade level, but the protagonist is an adult in his early 20s. The copy is printed in large type with widely spaced lines, which is why I say it’s hardly more than a short story. Had it been printed in normal-sized book type with normally spaced lines, its length would have most likely been around 50 or so pages: a lengthy short story, yes, but still a short story. Plot development is minimal, character development is somewhat better (for Chago, at any rate), both of which generally can be forgiven in fiction of this length. However, there’s a gaping plot hole in the last few pages that, combined with the simplistic grade-school language, left this reader deeply dissatisfied. This plot hole almost feels like the author wrote something else in between the last chapter and the epilogue that he later took out, but he didn’t go back and smooth out the edges of the excision.

The premise of The Innocence Device is one I would enjoy seeing rewritten in adult-oriented language, and greatly expanded with more plot development, more character detail, more of the whys and the hows, the politics and the social disorder that must have led to such circumstances as exist within this novel. As I read through it (which took about 40 minutes — really, it’s just that short), I could almost see the full-length novel lurking in the shadows of each paragraph, waiting for someone like Hugh Howey, maybe, or Ben H. Winters, or (be still, my heart) China Miéville to flesh it out and bring it to life.

Too bad one of them didn’t think of it. Hey, Mr. Kowalski! Will you sell this idea to China Miéville and make me a happy woman? No? Two stars for you, then.

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2014 in review: Books

I got much more reading done this year than I expected. Part of that was due, I believe, to acquiring a Kindle and being willing to take a chance on Amazon freebies, some of which were hits, others misses. It’s easy to read the Kindle on the train; that extra uninterrupted 40+ minutes of reading time each day added up to a lot of pages. 31,567 pages to be precise.

Goodreads said I read 83 books in 2014. I actually started 83 books. I finished 76. Seven books were set aside before finishing because they were just too awful to continue. (I told you some of those Amazon freebies were misses.) However, one of those set aside was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, so even Pulitzer Prize winners are sometimes misses for me. Anyway, out of those 76 finished, five were re-reads. So 71 new-to-me books in a single year. I call that a win.

Several of those 71 books were stand-outs.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly BrothersThe first five volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cycle consumed a goodly portion of the first quarter of 2014. I expect I’ll start re-reading them as soon as I hear of a publication date for Volume VI. I’m hoping that publication date will be later this year.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen was a roller-coaster ride through the Depression with a pair of bank robbers who just won’t stay dead. This is one of those books that grabbed me first because of its enigmatic cover art but kept me intrigued by its premise and execution. I read this one on the plane during a flight to California.

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China Miéville astonished me, sickened me, disturbed me, and amazed me. I seldom give five stars to any book, but this one deserved top billing without doubt. As I said in my review, Perdido Street Station isn’t for everyone — it’s a challenge in both language and content — but I’m going to recommend it to everyone regardless. Seriously. Don’t miss it.

Max Barry’s Lexicon, which deals with a secret government entity that uses the power of words and knowledge of certain personality traits to manipulate people into particular actions, cured me of taking any more Facebook quizzes and posting them Lexiconto my wall. Barry has a gift for plot-driven stories that move forward at Warp 10 but still manage to give the reader decently-realized characters and generally plausible Night Filmstorylines. Lexicon is a fast fun popcorn novel that scared the bejabbers out of me.

I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in 2013 and thought it was excellent. Based on that experience, I grabbed Night Film as soon as I found it in my library’s catalog. I was not disappointed. Night Film explores the aftermath of a suicide, the power of film, and the boundaries of obsession. It’s dark and dreamy and enigmatic and twisted and a disturbing pleasure to read.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt introduces us to a grieving 14-year-old June Elbus after the death of her beloved uncle Finn. June’s mother, who is Finn’s sister, doesn’t seem to care much that her only brother has died, and June doesn’t know why. Then June meets Finn’s roommate, Toby, and discovers hidden aspects to her uncle’s life. This novel works on a number of levels: an exploration of society’s reaction to AIDS in 1987, a not-so-typical coming-of-age story as June realizes her uncle had an entire life that didn’t include her, and a dissection of family dynamics when one member of the family is considered an untouchable by the others. Plus it’s gorgeously written. So, yeah, if you haven’t read this one, put it on your list.

WoolFinally, I want to mention a couple of trilogies. First, the Silo Trilogy by Hugh Howey, consisting of Wool, Shift, and Dust. I’ve read a lot, and I mean a lot, of post-apocalyptic stories, and the Silo Trilogy was hands-down one of the most original explorations of that theme I’ve seen in a lifetime of reading. In the not-so-distant future, thousands of people, survivors of an unnamed apocalypse, live underground in a silo. They don’t know how long they’ve been there; they don’t know how long it will be before they’re allowed to live above ground; but in the meantime, there’s work to be done, repairs to be made, and people to feed. Discontent is brewing, though, and revolution is in the air. This trilogy, while very well done, is not without its flaws, especially in Book 3, but its overall excellence makes those flaws worth overlooking.

The Last PolicemanThe other trilogy worthy of mention is technically “pre-apocalypse”, because the world-ending event hasn’t yet happened, but it’s post-apocalypse in the sense that global societal structure has already collapsed. In The Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters — The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble — a previously unknown asteroid has been verified to be on collision course with Earth, and the date of impact is approaching. Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, New Hampshire, Police Department keeps showing up for work while more and more of his colleagues and fellow citizens bail out of their jobs, their marriages, and their lives to fulfill lifelong dreams or, as is all too often the case, to kill themselves in despair. Each novel takes us closer to the impact date and deeper into Hank’s efforts to find meaning and purpose in these last months and weeks and days. He clings to his humanity, to his belief in goodness, and to his life itself, despite recognizing that everything he knows and everyone he loves is gone. Hank is a gorgeous, generous, determined character, and this trilogy, although deeply sad, is a testament to the beauty of life even in the face of extermination.

You can see the entire 2014 list on Goodreads here.