Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Although I'm a big science fiction/fantasy fan, urban fantasy is not my favorite subgenre. Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first in the Dresden Files series, is among the best of the urban fantasy I've read. Set in modern day Chicago, it features Harry Dresden, a wizard who advertises in the yellow pages and works as a consultant for the Chicago Police Department. Harry is courtly and old-fashioned, as well as intelligent, creative, and skilled at getting out of tight situations. I found Harry interesting, I enjoyed the insertion of magic into urban Chicago, and I especially liked Harry's cat Mister. Fans of urban fantasy who have not yet checked out the Dresden Files are likely to love this series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s new adult book The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant and powerful novel that is incredibly difficult to read. Rowling proves in this book what a skillful writer she is. She is able to create characters so complex, so multi-faceted, that it’s hard to remember they aren’t real.

Contrary to what the publisher promised in its promotional materials, The Casual Vacancy is not a “black comedy.” It is a grim, honest, realistic slice of life, populated by troubled, deep, and interesting people. There are a lot of important characters in The Casual Vacancy. It takes determination and patience to learn about each one and keep them straight.

Despite the grim and depressing circumstances outlined for so many of the characters, I could feel myself drawn into the world of Pagford, the small town in England that serves as the book’s setting. It didn’t seem that different in many ways from the city in which I live. The themes are relevant to life in the United States as well as England. Some of the people of Pagford resent the people who live in a place referred to as the Fields. It lies between Pagford and the larger city of Yarvil. Yarvil pays for the provision of many services to the Fields, but Pagford bears part of the burden. To their dismay, this includes allowing children of the Fields to attend their school, which they feared “would be overrun and swamped by the offspring of scroungers, addicts, and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.”

Some of the arguments are depressingly familiar. At one point two characters are discussing whether the addiction clinic does any good, and the subject turns to “principles.”

“Yes, well, principles are sometimes the problem, if you ask me,” said Miles. “Often what’s needed is a bit of common sense.”
“Which is the name people usually give to their prejudices,” rejoined Kat.

Rowling has a great talent for making her readers care for the characters she creates. In this novel, there is no main character. Instead, we are inside the heads of many people through a narrator. Rowling will introduce a character in such a way as to provoke a negative reaction, and then let us see the character’s life from a different standpoint and stir up great sympathy. She first introduces a promiscuous, ignorant, and belligerent girl through the eyes of a teenaged boy and a school administrator; later we see the girl skipping school to clean up her filthy home in desperate hopes of persuading a social worker not to take her little brother from her addict mother. Another teenaged girl is being bullied, and at one point I was reluctant to read ahead because I was afraid the bully would not be the obvious candidate but another character, and I really did not want that other character to be a bully.

The plot is relatively straightforward, but it moves steadily toward a terrific and terrible climax. Even though I wasn’t able to predict what was coming, I felt a mounting sense of dread over the last fifth of the book.

I am not easily moved to tears, but I cried at the end of The Casual Vacancy. I keep thinking about the events in the book and how they could have been changed for the better through action by some of the characters, and I marvel at how I feel real grief. I wonder how the characters are getting on; then I have to remind myself that they aren’t real people. In the end, my sadness is not only for the unfortunate characters in the book but for the many real people whose lives are just as unfortunate. I’m guessing that was one of Rowling’s objectives.

I will not say that I enjoyed this complex and heartbreaking book. It’s too grim and real. But I am very glad that I read it, and I highly recommend The Casual Vacancy to any reader who likes realistic fiction, exceptionally well-drawn characters, and excellent writing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

This book is a story about a young woman named Amina who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She wants to get married and live in America, so she starts searching dating websites and finally finds a man named George who lives in Rochester, New York. They email back and forth, until George decides to come to Bangladesh to meet his potential bride. Amina is beautiful and smart, and doesn't play games like American women, so George falls in love. This book is really about two extremely different cultures trying to come together. Amina's parents, and Amina for that matter, assume they will be moving to America once Amina gets all of her documentation in order, so they can live with their daughter and new husband and take care of the cooking and cleaning and help raise the children. George, on the other hand, doesn't really understand this idea and trys to stall as long as possible. It is interesting to see how different these two cultures are, and fun to watch Amina learn about things in America. She makes new friends, gets different jobs and even goes to school. She also figures out a secret that George has been hiding, but she has one of her own, so they are even. This is a very well-written book about two people who are totally different in every way possible. The author does an excellent job of describing life in Bangladesh, introducing us to new foods and all the difficulties of living in this place. It is a good read.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Homesick by Kate Klise

Submitted by Amy, teen reviewer:

[Summary from the publisher] Benny’s parents are splitting up. His mom leaves home after a fight about a mysterious splinter that is rumored to be part of an important relic. Benny’s dad has always liked clutter, but now, he begins hoarding everything from pizza boxes to old motorcycle parts. As his house grows more cluttered and his father grows more distant, Benny tries to sort out whether he can change anything at all. Meanwhile, a local teacher enters their quiet Missouri town in America’s Most Charming Small Town contest, and the pressure is on to clean up the area, especially Benny’s ramshackle of a house, before the out-of-town guests arrive.

From Amy: Homesick is a great book. To say I read this book in one night isn't intending to show off, but simply to prove this book is worthy of staying up late to read. The characters are rich and realistic. I could picture them all perfectly. They always say that a book that can make you feel for the characters is a good one, and this book had my heart breaking. This book was also well written and thought out. It kept me on my toes until the last page. Just by reading the back, I could tell this book was going to be juicy. This is totally something I would recommend to my friends. I give it 4-5 stars.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rain Dragon by Jon Raymond

Nothing in this world tugs at my heart strings quite like a pretty book facade. What can I say? I’m easily charmed. Jon Raymond’s Rain Dragon just has one of those covers--it sings to my inner wannabe bohemian gypsy. Conveniently, Rain Dragon is sort of about bohemian gypsies. Damon and his lady, Amy, just recently abandoned the thriving metropolis of Los Angeles in search of a way to reconnect with the land and, by extension, each other. After touring a series of sustainable farm outfits, they stumble upon Rain Dragon, a farm in Oregon best known for its organic yogurt line. Rain Dragon is chock-full of idealistic folk from all walks of life--engineers, bankers, carpenters--looking to simplify and make greater contributions to global consciousness. At the helm of this lofty idea ship is Rain Dragon’s charisma-radiating leader Peter Hawk. With Peter as their guide, Amy quickly finds her spot among the pack while Damon slowly, painfully languishes until he finally stumbles upon a unique gift.

Quiet, somewhat strange, and emotionally dense--in the “I’m not so bright when it comes to feelings” kind of dense--Rain Dragon is as wandering and curious as its characters.