Monday, February 25, 2013

Fuse by Julianna Baggott

Fuse is the second book in the Pure Trilogy by Julianna Baggott. I reread my review of Pure, the first book, before writing this review of Fuse, and I was surprised at how ambivalent I was about Pure (  I noted that I almost stopped reading it. At this point in the series I don’t even remember that! I had no trouble getting into Fuse. It pulled me back into the story and the dystopian world immediately. I reconnected with the characters from the first page.

The Pure trilogy is set in the future in the Baltimore area after a terrible series of Detonations have turned the landscape to rubble and damaged everyone not destroyed by the blasts. In view of the ruined city stands a sealed Dome containing survivors who escaped the bombs. It is nine years since the Detonations. The survivors are horribly damaged. Everyone has burns and embedded glass and metal. The bombs had the ability to merge living flesh and inanimate objects. Life inside the Dome has its perils as well, and characters leave the Dome and interact with survivors outside.

This is still a very disturbing series, but I guess I’m used to that now. Fuse has a lot of action, since we already know the characters. Still, we get character development and new insights. My favorite characters are El Capitan, a former soldier now in league with those resisting the Dome, and his brother Helmud (fused to his back since the Detonations), and the relationship between them.

The world of Pure is an unsettling but fascinating place. Fans of the Hunger Games and Divergent series are likely to get absorbed in the Pure trilogy as well.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

I chose The Crown Conspiracy, the first book in Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, as the February 2013 discussion book for the Tome Raiders (the library’s sci fi/fantasy group). Originally self-published as ebooks, the six books in the series are now available as three volumes containing two books each. I enjoyed the first book so much I immediately plunged in to Avempartha, the second book in the series and in the first volume, Theft of Swords.

At least so far, the Riyria Revelations is not a deep fantasy with moral issues to wrestle with. It is a rollicking good time. It’s really a buddy series – think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which inspired the author. The recent Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law also come to mind. The two main characters are the type who are still exchanging wisecracks even as they face what seems to be certain death.

Royce Melborn is a thief. Orphaned as a child, he has a shady past but also excellent hearing and eyesight. His partner Hadrian Blackwater is the son of a blacksmith but one of the best swordsmen in the land. Together they make up Riyria, available for hire as thieves to help the upper class get out of (or get others into) romantic and other intrigue

We meet them in a forest, being held up by a band of inept ruffians. After calmly convincing the would-be thieves of Who They Are, Royce gives them some helpful advice: “drop a tree across the road next time…This is just pathetic. And cover your faces for Maribor’s sake.”

They are known throughout the lands for their daring and seemingly impossible feats of thievery. They once stole something extremely valuable and returned it the next night. In The Crown Conspiracy, they are tricked into taking a job that is a set up. It leaves them in prison and about to be tortured and killed for murdering a king. Fortunately, with some well-timed assistance, they escape and set out to clear their names.

The first book is largely introduction. We learn about the lands and the various races in it. We meet a mysterious wizard who has been imprisoned for 1000 years in a place where time stands still. (He also had his hands cut off, an intriguing limitation to future magic from this character.) An immature young price matures at the hands of his captor-protectors, Royce and Hadrian. A monk who has spent his entire life in an abbey sees his first horse – and his first woman. It’s a good time but not particularly deep.

The second book, Avempartha, does a great job building on the first. There is more to Royce and Hadrian than meets the eye. Each has secrets, some they themselves may not even know. The Art (magic) comes into play more significantly. I found the elves very interesting. In the first book we understand that those with elven blood are slaves, and I thought of them as being like J.K. Rowling’s elves. However, it turns out they are more like Tolkien’s elves, long lived and with extraordinary gifts. A thousand years ago they were defeated in a war with men and driven across an impassable river. Those with elven blood living in the world of men hide if they can, or are treated as vermin if they can’t.

The camaraderie in these first two books in the series reminded me of the best of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series. There are many aspects similar to other fantasy works, but that actually makes it easy to plunge right into the story without having to keep track of too many new things. If you are looking for a fun epic fantasy series, I definitely recommend the Riyria Revelations. I’m off to get my hands on the next volume in the series.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Creatures is yet another teen-aged paranormal romance. It’s the first in a series. A local boy in the Deep South falls for the mysterious new girl who lives in the local “haunted mansion” with her uncle. Over the course of this book, Ethan learns about the existence of the supernatural (his mother sending him messages from beyond the grave, for example) without showing much shock or surprise. He takes it all in stride in a fairly unbelievable way. He and Lena express their undying love for each other on a regular and wearying basis. Their fellow high school students are stereotypically bullying of the unusual new girl.

Still, Beautiful Creatures is better than some other books I’ve read of this kind. At least neither Ethan nor Lena is abusive and controlling. I did find it refreshing that the book was told from the boy’s point of view, rather than the girl’s. There is a strong and helpful librarian aiding the lovers (always a plus for me). I enjoyed Beautiful Creatures (which I read in anticipation of the movie) well enough, but I will not be seeking out the rest of the series.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

I have been curious what the back cover of the final version of Love Anthony says because mine implies it is mostly the story of Anthony’s mother, Olivia, after he dies. I was surprised then, to find the story focuses just as much on the story of another mother named Beth, whose husband is having an affair. Oh, and she’s also an aspiring writer. At that point it would have been easier, perhaps even advisable, to shut the book and find something funny—the newest Evanovich maybe—but Genova had already hooked me, and what’s life without a little humiliating introspection?


I have only classroom exposure to autism, and I know this is a spectrum diagnosis rather than a definitive description, but I believe Genova explores the topic with sensitivity and depth.  Olivia’s journal entries are so real and so insightful I found it difficult not to weep, and rage and rejoice alongside her. Then there’s Beth’s story within the story, “translating,” as it were, a little-understood voice. Perhaps at times the intertwining of the stories is a little too convenient, but then again, that is one of my favorite aspects of Love, Actually. It is satisfying in a non-cheesy way. For the cheese-phobic, consider yourself alerted.

I also appreciate the way the seasons and the setting underscore the journeys of both women, but not identically. “Spring Awakening” isn’t automatically joy when the crowds new life brings are an assault to the senses. Perhaps in that way, too, we can gain a little insight into Anthony. 

Finally, personal difficulties aside, I admire the “no easy answers” approach to looking at each woman’s failing marriage and the choices they make regarding those relationships as well as deciding what path they must each choose.

Love Anthony was published in September and is available for checkout.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

In some ways, it's difficult to offer an exhaustive critique of Mary Roach's (Stiff) latest offering of peculiar nonfiction, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, because it's tough for the work itself to be exhaustive. By the end, readers will likely have more unanswered questions regarding the gastrointestinal tract than they ever imagined asking, but that is more of a testament to Roach's ability to draw us in to a superficially off-putting subject than a critique of her limited scope. If you're looking for a textbook treatment of the guts, et al, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a witty and hilarious writer's anecdote- and interview-driven look at digestion, look no further.

But wait, you say? You're not grossed out by the idea of this book, but you also wouldn't describe yourself as someone ' looking for a witty and hilarious writer's anecdote- and interview-driven look at digestion'? Well, this book's probably for you, too. Considering the cultural taboo surrounding a discussion of the digestive process, probably very little of the thinking and discourse of your adult life is dedicated to the subject outside of specialist visits and child-rearing. It certainly isn't dinner conversation. But all of that avoidance amounts to a general lack of understanding of a subject that is (and I say this more emphatically now than ever) nothing if not fascinating.

Employing the same structure for her book as the human body employs for its digestion, Roach begins with the mouth, addressing such topics as taste receptors in humans and animals, the importance of the nose in eating, and the under-appreciated role of saliva in our daily lives. Throughout the book, she makes her down the esophagus, into the stomach, through the small intestine and eventually into the colon. From there, as even a cursory knowledge of human digestion would suggest, Roach moves into the more graphic and taboo territory of waste management and all related discussions, but I'll leave the contents of those chapters a surprise.

Along the way, Roach dutifully serves as an intelligent, humorous guide, offering astute observations on one page and witty provocations the next. As she states here, the dominant theme of all her works is the intersection of science and obsession, and her interactions with various scientists and industry sorts benefit from this calibration. It isn't purely the science, the answer, that interests Roach, but also the culture and context of her subject that proves worthy of study. For us laypeople, that combination makes for enlightening and wonderfully enjoyable reading. To conclude, I'll leave you with a classic Roach quote that sums up the serio-comic approach she has taken to her subject. In addressing the possibility that she might be abnormal for her interest in the inner-workings of the human body, she deadpans: "It is, of course, possible that I seem strange. You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her ass. To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

"No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl - by laws, regulations, and social customs." Le Figaro, 1880. After reading this wonderfully written work, I can see why the author decided to use this quote in the beginning of her novel. "The Painted Girls" is a wonderful, although sometimes disturbing, tale of three sisters and their Mother, who is an alcoholic and not the greatest mother anyway, living in Paris in 1878. Their father has just died, so they are struggling to make ends meet. It centers around this incredibly poor family and we get to see how life was really like for them. The reader literally takes a journey with two of the sisters, living their young years with them and following them into adulthood. All three of the sisters are involved in ballet, so we also get an idea of what that kind of work entails, seeing both the beauty and all the behind-the-scenes activity. As a side job, one of the sisters becomes a model for Edgar Degas, where she sits for the statue "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." She then models for another artist, although he does not have the class and respectfulness that Degas did. It was very easy to get involved in the lives of these three sisters. I also learned a lot about this time period, which is always fun. If you like historical fiction that captures the essence of a time period then this book will be enjoyable for you!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You've Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way

I am a huge fan of J.R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. I am not particularly interested in philosophy. However, due to that first fact, I decided to give The Hobbit and Philosophy a try. I was particularly enticed by the subtitle: "For when you've lost your dwarves, your wizard, and your way."

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Some of the articles were, I confess, a bit dull for my tastes, but others were fascinating. The essays gave me something to think about, regarding life, Tolkien, and The Hobbit.

One of my favorite essays was "Pretty Fair Nonsense" by Philip Tallon. It includes a Tolkien quote I was not familiar with.

"Tolkien was similarly unconcerned with whether modernist critics would judge his fantasy writings to be nonsense. Tolkien invented and endlessly elaborated his world of Middle-earth with no sense that it could ever be anything more than a private amusement. 'I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty,' Tolkien writes, adding, 'I work only for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing.'"

I like that a lot - it makes me admire Tolkien even more! Another essay, "Hobbitus Ludens" by David L. O'Hara, contained a C.S. Lewis quote that caught my attention. (I'm no fan of Lewis, so I've not read much that he has said.) "The Hobbit, though very unlike Alice [in Wonderland], resembles it in being the work of a professor at play." I love Alice, and I'd never thought of Alice and the Hobbit as being connected in this way. And I enjoy the image of both authors "at play."

Another essay I especially enjoyed was "There and Back Again" by Joe Kraus, which discusses the Hobbit in context with William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

If you are a fan of the Hobbit, I think you'll find some essays to enjoy in The Hobbit and Philosophy.