The Passage

The Passage by Justin Cronin9780345504975

publication date: 2010
pages: 766
ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8

In his novel, Justin Cronin explored every possible meaning of his title: the passage of time, safe passage, the passing from life into death, a hallway that takes you from A to B, and even a diary entry. Cronin utilized 766 pages to tell the story of a post-apocalyptic Earth in the not-too-distant future. This Earth was overrun by carnivorous beings that the remaining humans had many names for: virals, smokes, dracs. Basically, they were vampires with 400 pages of back story and a medically explainable origin.

The book revolved around Amy, a young girl with the unique ability to talk to the mysterious vampire-like creatures. The story was epic in scope, encompassing decades and much of the United States. The plot began in the very near future, with the government experimenting with the creation of immortal beings. As time passed, and the setting turned more dystopian and fractured, the story shifted to a West Coast community that called itself The Colony.

In my opinion, Cronin wrote this book to explore – or capitalize on – the vampire myth but in an ostensibly “literary” way. The book included many themes, including ruminations on death, time, and fatherhood. It also introduced seemingly logical explanations for what was happening, like a virus that hyper activates the thymus gland. The book was also written from many points of view, all with their own thoughts and motivations. Additionally, Cronin supplemented the narration by including maps, diary entries, academic findings, and the like. Obviously, a lot of time and effort went into the formation of The Passage.

However, with all that effort Cronin put into it, the book didn’t always work. It was too long, with too many twists and turns. It was like watching a Pixar movie, where the characters had to go through numerous pointless adventures. I found myself bored often. Not only was the plot sometimes monotonous or senseless, the abundant meditations on the book’s themes were repetitive. I read what seemed like dozens of paragraphs that were variations on this theme:

His whole life Peter had thought of the world of the Time Before as something gone. It was as if a blade had fallen onto time itself, cleaving it into halves, that which came before and that which came after. Between these halves there was no bridge; the war had been lost, the Army was no more, the world beyond the Colony was an open grave of a history no one even remembered.

Starting about page 425, I was wondering if the book needed to be as long and convoluted as it was; by about 600 I caught myself skimming just to get the book over with; and at about 740 I was bewildered as to the point of it all.

The book wasn’t bad, and it had some interesting parts. If you like reading hefty tomes with plots that never quit, I would absolutely recommend this. It could keep you busy for a while.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times
The Nerdist

House Of Rain

House Of Rain by Craig Childs9780316067546

publication date: 2006
pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

In House Of Rain, Craig Childs presented a piece of reportorial nonfiction, interwoven with narrative travelogue. For several seasons, Childs trekked the southwestern U.S. in order to discover for himself the world of the native people who inhabited that land before Europeans. Childs moved through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico, often on foot, to follow the centuries-long migrations of a people he usually called “Anasazi.” There is some controversy surrounding the term Anasazi, both because there is disagreement about how large their territory actually was and because Anasazi, a Navajo term, can be objectionable to modern-day Pueblo people – who instead may use the term “Ancestral Puebloans.” Childs used this phrase sometimes, along with another – Hisatsinom – that is used by contemporary Hopi. Childs explained his use of the word Anasazi and used other words when he thought it was appropriate.

House Of Rain described Childs’s travels as he explored cliff dwellings, seemingly uninhabitable gorges, great Anasazi kivas, and active archaeological digs. His travelogue writing was compelling, although often pretentious. A good example was this passage, when Childs was exploring Anasazi construction on what is now a national park:

A cascade of flute music emanated from speakers tucked among the ceiling beams. I stood still for a moment, a little surprised, recognizing immediately that the music was played not on a Native American flute, but on a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. . . . This kiva was tangled in eclectic ancestry, unrelated histories passing in and out of each other, brought together by this place. What was it Einstein said, that time and space are the same entity? Does that mean that if you stand in one place and are a keen enough observer, you can see clearly through time’s entire lineage?

His discussions of the Anasazi people could also be self-serious or extravagant, but he did present many interesting facts about their daily lives and viewpoints. Here was his discussion of Kinishba, a vacated Anasazi compound:

I sensed manners and social regimentation in the way the site was laid out. It was not the monastic atmosphere I had once imagined in the halls of [another compound called Chaco], but a busy, orderly setting, an urban trade center. Everyone had a place, some families having doorways that opened prominently onto plazas, others living in smoky, poorly lit rooms deep in the pueblo’s interior.

The nonfiction account of the Anasazi people and Childs’s descriptions of his expeditions was often woven together effectively and he presented a convincing case that the land he was exploring needed to be walked or hiked to ever understand the Anasazi people.

Childs’s tone was often dense and he imbued even the smallest event with meaning. However, he created a generally compelling and informative work.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Orion Magazine
Ms. M’s Bookshelf
Light+Space+Structure blog

Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett9780062237378

publication date: 1992
pages: 386
ISBN: 978-0-06-223737-8

In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett lampooned religion, God, gods, and the certainty and absurdity of men (and I mean men; basically none of the characters were female). Generally, Pratchett’s mockery was successful, and the book became more than just a send-up of humanity’s foibles.

Almost certainly, the book’s ultimate goal was to show the folly of religion. Pratchett’s plot, style, characters, and setting were all used to further that goal. Within the book, Pratchett created a fictional, long-established religion: The Church of the Great God Om. The country of Omnia was ruled by the Church and the Church dictated the laws of all Omnians. Pratchett introduced us to Brutha, a slow-witted and good-hearted Omnian monk who accidentally stumbled upon a quest on behalf of the Great God Om. Pratchett also presented Vorbis, a leader in the Church and an all-around bad guy. Finally, Pratchett introduced Om, the once-great god who remembered the days when he was powerful enough to smite enemies and sacrifice believers but who now, because of a decrease of faith in Omnia, is only a one-eyed tortoise who reluctantly relies on Brutha’s help.

Pratchett didn’t always take his plot too seriously. His writing style was satirical and clever. The pages were covered in jokes; some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Many of the jokes were at the expense of religion or the idea that human knowledge and certainty is anything less than ridiculous. For example, here was an exchange Brutha witnessed when he first met the learned philosophers from the country of Ephebe:

The [philosopher] called Xeno stepped forward, adjusting the hang of his toga.
“That’s right,” he said. “We’re philosophers. We think, therefore we am.”
“Are,” said the luckless paradox manufacturer automatically.
Xeno spun around. “I’ve just about had it up to here with you, Ibid!” he roared. He turned back to Brutha. “We are, therefore we am,” he said confidently. “That’s it.”

Although Pratchett used his plot as a tool to convey his message and showcase his cleverness, he did give the story a beginning, middle, and end, and I was usually invested in what was happening with Brutha, Vorbis, and Om. The story was too long, however, and became repetitive and dull. Also, Pratchett would sometimes write with such heavy irony or such deliberate passivity that the action was confusing and the story was unclear.

Also, the whole book left me with a vague feeling of bewilderment. Parts of it were funny or interesting, but it all seemed pointless. If Pratchett wanted to convince people of his anti-religion message, surely a heavy-handed book making fun of religious people wasn’t the best tactic? But if Pratchett instead wanted to entertain those who already believed in the stupidity of religion, than the whole book was like an echo chamber, full of self-congratulatory jokes.

With that said, the book was funny, clever, and filled with details plucked from Pratchett’s active imagination. Go ahead and give it a whirl, if you want.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Faith Fusion
The Narratologist
SF Reviews

Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham9781563899423

publication date: 2002
pages: 119
ISBN: 978-1-56389-942-3

In Fables, creator Bill Willingham presented, in comic book form, an alternate ending for all those stories we heard as children. What if, instead of “Happily ever after,” all the characters in the fairy tales were driven out of their idyllic homelands by a villain of pure evil and forced to spend eternity living in Manhattan? Volume One of Fables, titled Legends in Exile, collected the first five issues of the comic and introduced us to Fabletown, a Manhattan enclave where all the fairy tale fables lived. These included Snow White, deputy mayor of Fabletown and competent administrator; Bigby Wolf, the big, bad wolf in human form, who now uses his powers for good as Fabletown sheriff; and Prince Charming, a triple divorcee and unscrupulous womanizer. Legends in Exile also introduced The Adversary, the mysterious evil force who chased all the fables out of their kingdoms and into the New World centuries ago. The plot of Legends in Exile followed Sheriff Bigby Wolf as he attempted to solve the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s younger sister

This comic contained a lot of good things. I though it was especially effective when it showed the fables actually inhabiting New York City and surrounded by New Yorkers. For example, there was a scene where Prince Charming was walking his new conquest back to her apartment; as they were walking they were surrounded by very detailed background New Yorkers, including a door man with a soul patch and a woman wearing John Lennon glasses and carrying a baguette as she waited to cross the street.

Bigby Wolf’s character was also a lot of fun. His face was always drawn in partial darkness, giving him a sinister edge. And, in at least one panel, his shadow is drawn as the silhouette of a wolf, even as Bigby is in human form. In fact, most of the images throughout the volume were compelling and memorable. The faces were intricate and drawn with emotion. The panels included lots of great details. Also the color tones were really effective at showing emotions and feeling.

However, Legends in Exile definitely had some flaws. First of all, everyone was white. I noticed one black character, and he was in the background, without any place in the plot. Secondly, as is a problem with many comics, the boobs were ridiculous. Every female character, if she was seen from the front, had large, round, and floaty boobs displayed for all to see at least once in the comic. I guess not every female character: they didn’t show the elderly black forest witch’s cleavage.

Also, the dialogue was not always compelling. Facts about the characters or plot were often presented in a rote manner, and with unnecessary bluntness. For example, here is how we get introduced to the character of Rose Red, within a conversation between Bigby Wolf and Snow White:

[Bigby Wolf:] You need to prepare yourself for some bad news, Snow.
[Show White:] Don’t be so dramatic. I already know. My ex is back in town. . . .
[Wolf:] This isn’t about Prince Charming. It’s about your sister, Rose Red.
[Snow:] This may surprise you, Mister Wolf, but I’m not entirely an idiot. I actually know my sister’s name. So what’s she done this time?

Also, the plot came off the rails sometimes, although I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.

Overall, this was a fun comic, which would probably be a good introduction for those who are looking to read more graphic fiction. I’ve continued to read subsequent issues of Fables, if that’s any indication.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Pop Matters
The Literary Omnivore
PFS Publishing Book Club blog

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu9781481451864

publication date: 2015
pages: 618
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

In this attempt at an epic fantasy novel, author Ken Liu presented a sprawling fictional universe, chockful of dozens of new proper nouns that I had to memorize and become interested in. The Grace of Kings focused on the island kingdom of Dara and the jockeying for power among Dara’s ambitious citizens. The novel began with a parade, celebrating the new emperor of Dara, Emperor Mapidéré, whose brutal conquest of Dara left many in his kingdom with rebellious and power-hungry thoughts. Liu then spent the next 550 pages detailing the political and military maneuverings of all those interested in the throne.

The Grace of Kings was just the first in a series of books, called the “Dandelion Dynasty,” which described the rulers of Dara. I, for one, will not be reading the rest of the series.

My main problem with the book was that it was tiresome. It’s tiresome to learn an entire geographic region, and its relevant history, and its contemporary elite. And this particular universe that Liu created wasn’t even very original; it was like reading the “A Song Of Ice and Fire” series, or the excellent “Graceling” series, but with different proper nouns. All of the political and military intrigue was tedious. This was all perfectly represented in a single sentence, from about a third through the book:

With the help of Faҫa’s King Shilué, King Jizu, the grandson of the last King of Rima before the Unification, had reclaimed the throne in the ancient capital of Na Thion.

It was so hard for me to care about any of that. I had no context. I only just learned about Rima 100 pages before, much less all that other stuff. An effective way to get me to care about a fictional world and plot is to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Liu’s characters had a very rocky start. His characters began as very rote: the trickster, the heartless emperor, the feckless child king etc.

However, although the characters began as uninspired tropes of the fantasy genre, Liu used that to his advantage and, by the end of the book, the characters were very rewarding. Liu created space for all the characters to grow and change with their circumstances, which meant the wife and mother you met at the beginning of the book was very different from the wife and mother at the end.

Also, specific and particular plot points within the book could be fun and interesting. There was an assassination attempt with a kite, and an origin story involving a silk scroll with a prophecy found inside the belly of a fish, and an ascendant king traveling the ocean by riding on the back of a whale. So although I didn’t care much about the overarching plot, with someone always fighting with someone else for some small bit of land, each individual scene usually contained some engaging action.

This book was certainly not terrible. It was much better than another fantasy book I reviewed, The Name Of the Wind. And it seemed like the author was trying to do something interesting, was trying to take the common tropes of fantasy and use them for a purpose, instead of just populating his book with them. If you’re new to fantasy, this is one of the better books in that genre to read. If you love fantasy, might as well give this a shot because it does adhere so well to the genre. If you’re just a casual reader of fantasy, I don’t know that I would recommend this book over any other.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

npr
Elitist Book Reviews
Tor.com

Native Guard

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey514ukx2mkzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2006
pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-618-60463-0

In this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Trethewey presented powerfully structured poems, which contained immediate imagery and explored personal and potent themes. For those who like poetry, this is a wonderful and effective collection.

The first thing I noticed about the poems was how suited they were for being read out loud. Trethewey’s use of rhythm and the sounds of the consonants and vowels in her words was impressive. Here was an example, which I would encourage you to read out loud:

                             She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

In these poems, Trethewey examined issues of race, loss, identity, motherhood, home, and memory, all in a cohesive and energetic way. Here she explored loss and mourning, in a poem titled “After Your Death”:

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves.

Here was another example, focusing on race and history, written from the perspective of a former slave who has joined the Union Army in the Civil War:

                                                     I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

Additionally, Trethewey used the strictures of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, and repetition, in a careful, studied way. Her use of repetition was always especially effective. The rules that Trethewey adhered to allowed her to craft compelling and unpredictable poems. Here was an example of this from the poem titled “Incident”:

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

Generally, all the poems were engaging, but there were a few slow or dull ones in the second half of the book. If you enjoy poetry, I would absolutely recommend this.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of Native Guard:

Bookslut
Savvy Verse and Wit blog
Nothing More Wonderful blog

Spoken From the Heart

Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush 9781439155202

publication date: 2010
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5521-9

Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, the 43d president of the United States, published this memoir about two years after her husband left office. The book, which wasn’t short, spent about 200 pages discussing Laura’s childhood, the early years of her marriage with George, and the first few months of George’s presidency. The remaining half of the book focused on 9/11 and the years following.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Bush was a fine writer and had access to many interesting stories, which she usually told with aplomb. The book was most effective when Bush depicted the stories of all the amazing, ordinary people she had met, like the doctor on the Thai-Burmese border who dedicated her life to providing medical care to Burmese refugees.

Bush’s retelling of the events surrounding 9/11 was very moving. I cried. In her description of that day – and throughout the book – Bush included perfect details to capture the essence of whatever she was recounting. For example, here was her portrayal of the evacuation of a nearby school:

Within minutes of the attack, many parents had rushed to the school to pick up their children, but as the streets clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles racing south, 150 students remained behind. The school’s principal, Anna Switzer, herded them, their teachers, and a few parents inside. Before the South Tower fell, Switzer and her teachers lined up the students, ages five to eleven, in a single file and told them to hold hands. They stepped out of the building into the ash and smoke. Some looked up and watched as men and women flung themselves from the upper floors of the towers, their bodies passing through the billowing flames. One child said, “The birds are on fire.”

Although Bush spent a significant portion of the book discussing politics, she didn’t offer much criticism of her husband or herself. She attempted to rationalize much of her and her husband’s behavior, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. She completely skipped over things from the Bush administration that existed but that she seemingly didn’t agree with. For example, in the entire book, she only referred to Dick Cheney twice, although she brought up other political figures numerous times. She also never mentioned the controversial use of torture that was a huge issue for the Bush administration. She managed to remain silent on torture even as she recounted her visits to Bagram Air Base and dismissed the travesty at Abu Ghraib prison as a failure of the system of command.

The book humanized Bush and her husband, by detailing intimate moments of their lives and by describing all the time and attention to detail that goes into being a head of state. However, it didn’t remove the feeling of dissatisfaction with their performance, especially surrounding the nonexistence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Spoken From the Heart was obviously very political. If Bush’s politics are so disagreeable to you that you can’t see them in print, then I would not recommend this book to you. However, the portraits that Bush created in this book, of people doing amazing, or interesting, or important things, were very compelling and effectively rendered.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
OnTheIssues.org