Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell97812500495512

publication date: 2015
pages: 517
ISBN: 978-1-250-04955-1

Carry On was another entrant in the “Chosen One” category, a la Harry Potter, Frodo, and countless other (usually YA) novels wherein a main character is given Herculean tasks and, after many trials and tribulations, completes them. However, our hero Simon Snow wasn’t necessarily the wizard any of us would have chosen for the job. He’s a self-proclaimed “thug” who thought more about food than magic. In fact, Rainbow Rowell precisely and perfectly constructed characters that broke the mold of the genre. A girlfriend who was enamored with the bad guy. A mentor who was never around to counsel because he was off raiding people’s houses in a costume and a funny mustache. A wizarding world with cars, and laptops, and smart phones.

Rowell’s characters were superb and maybe the best thing about a very good book. I loved how realistic they were. Her characters went through shoplifting phases at 14. Some cursed, some drank, some fell in love and lust. And some just wanted out of the game entirely. This book reflected real people who just happened to be magic, and Rowell did a great job of crafting and describing her characters. For example, Simon’s girlfriend wasn’t interested in waiting around for him to complete his destiny:

‘I want to be someone’s right now, Simon, not their happily ever after. I don’t want to be the prize at the end. The thing you get if you beat all the bosses.’

And, as mentioned above, Simon was kind of a lovable doof. Here’s a description of Simon through the eyes of his roommate:

[Simon] likes to be the first person down to breakfast, Chomsky knows why. It’s 6 A.M., and he’s already banging around our room like a cow who accidentally wandered up here.

Beyond creating wonderful characters, Rowell created, as she always does, a wonderful love story. I won’t get too much into the identity of the characters, but Rowell created two young men whose relationship seemed like a remarkable inevitability. Rowell had a talent of focusing on the minute details of the people in love, without being overly descriptive or maudlin. For example, here’s a description of Simon from the guy who had a crush on him:

[Simon] swallows. [He] has the longest neck and the showiest swallow I’ve ever seen. His chin juts out and his Adam’s apple catches – it’s a whole scene.

Beyond the adorable love story with its delightful minutiae, the plot itself was actually quite good. There were twists and turns and several times where I was in suspense. Rowell crafted a story with sensible internal rules, solvable mysteries, and several believable villains. However, the few flaws in the book came from the plot. There were scenes that were muddled and character motivations that relied on suspension of disbelief to make any sense.

Overall, Rowell created an affectionate parody that perfectly satirized this beloved genre, while still creating characters and a story that will probably be a beloved part of the genre canon.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

Npr
Slate
Girl!Reporter 

Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox Of Old Growth In the Inland West by Nancy Langston

publication date: 1995
pages (including back matter) : 368
ISBN: 0-295-97456-7

For a book ostensibly about the decline in growth of Ponderosa pines in a small region of the Pacific Northwest, I found Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares to be surprisingly relatable.

In the book, Nancy Langston discussed the history of the Blue mountain range that spans the border between Oregon and Washington. At the time of her writing, the Blues had become a battleground between environmentalists, loggers, forest rangers, and bureaucratic government organizations. The history she gave of the Blues mainly encompassed the insertion of pioneers and ranchers in the 1880s up to the management by the Forest Service in the 1910s and the inadvertent destruction of the forest through the 1980s and 90s. Langston’s goal was to provide contemporary caretakers of the Blues with a way forward.

Being someone who is not overly interested in trees or plants or what Langston termed the “inland West,” I mainly picked up the book because I loved how melodramatic the title was. However, Langston wrote the book with such aplomb, I found myself constantly learning new and interesting things. Further, it is amazing how consistent human nature is, in its hubris and shortsightedness: from the Native Americans lighting fires in the forests decades before Americans arrived so they could ride their horses, to the loggers and ranchers in the 1920s who blamed the much milder sheepherders for any environmental damage done in the region because the sheepherders were often foreign, and to the overconfident Forest Service scientists in the 1940s who were so sure they knew what they were doing and instead brought in an era of unmanageable fires and insect invasions. Here is a long passage Langston shared about forest rangers attempting to reintroduce elk into the Blues after they had been hunted into extinction:

The history of elk reintroductions illustrates the ironic ways that attempts to save wild nature often led to the accelerated destruction of the wildness that people sought to preserve. . . . [In 1913], the [forest rangers] had to feed the [reintroduced] elk in stockyards for a month because of deep snow, and five more died and several calves were born prematurely and died. . . . The Association ran out of money to buy hay, and the elk were in danger of simply starving in the stockyards. . . . Finally one afternoon they drove them up to Benjamin Gulch on the edge of town. By morning all the elk had returned to the stockyards to be fed. Finally, in March, they drove the twenty-nine survivors to the Tumalum Creek at the north end of the Blues and released them in the forest, and this time they were too far to find their way back to the hay.

These are sad, confused stories of men who tried to manipulate wild things, which then refused to be wild, so people lost interest. . . . Reintroduction stories like the one recounted above are disturbing because people want wild nature to mean something.

The book’s explanations of its topic were interesting and sophisticated enough to keep me involved. However, Langston’s real masterstroke was that throughout all this, she told a story of American history and optimism. Of men (and a few women) who really thought they were doing right by god and country when they cut down old trees and grazed cattle until the land was barren and always moved ever West to find the next paradise. This is a book that is so much more than its compelling subject matter.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

University Of Washington Press
Book Addiction

From the Terrace

From the Terrace by John O’Hara

pages: 897
publication date: 1958
ISBN: 978-0394425801

I’m surprised John O’Hara isn’t more well-known as an American author. He takes the epic nature of a Steinbeck novel and combines it with the sharp social observation of a Fitzgerald novel, or he did in From the Terrace, anyway.

Although the beginning of From the Terrace was slow, and there was certainly a lot of text to get through (897 pages!), it was an absorbing and rewarding read. The book presented the life of Alfred Eaton, from his birth in a small Pennsylvania town to a wealthy and indifferent father in the early 1890s, to his ascent up the New York City society ladder, and through the 1950s, when the book was published.

O’Hara wonderfully captured so many aspects of America in the first half of the twentieth century, through the experiences of Alfred. For example, after Alfred returned stateside from World War I, he had this realization:

And here [Alfred] was learning through his father and mother a great truth that would be applicable to everyone else that had not been in the war. The mud-and-bayonet men would feel it more intensely, but to some degree all men who had been in uniform, under discipline, undergoing inconvenience, hardship and pain, treated like schoolchildren even in the matter of rewards – ice cream, cigarettes, chocolate, medals, small amounts of money, vacations measured by the hour or the day – were wanting or were going to want things to be different, and the first things were their people, and the difference was they should be the same but better. And it was too much to ask.

On a more personal note, Alfred Eaton was maybe the first literary character I was in the love with. I literally fell in love with Alfred Eaton. Sure, I’ve found characters cute or funny or sexy or intriguing before, but I really feel like I left a piece of my heart in this novel. O’Hara did such an incredible job of shaping and revealing Alfred to be this hateable, likable, lovable three-dimensional person. I’m not saying Alfred was all great. He was patronizing toward women, a hothead, and was not particularly hospitable toward his family. However, he was sexy, hilarious, and, even at his worst, I wanted to find the good in him.

The book certainly had its flaws. Like many books from that period, it only included the white, upper-class, straight viewpoint. O’Hara’s treatment of women wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. Also, as mentioned above, it is very long. Perhaps the density of the book contributed to its greatness; perhaps, however, a more adept writer could have captured the mood and characters in fewer words.

For anyone interested in American literature, this book is a must-read.

5/6: seek this book out

I could not find many reviews online, so here is the book’s goodreads page and a 1960 New York Times review of the movie adaption, which discussed parts of the book:

goodreads
New York Times

Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

publication date: 1987
pages: 416
ISBN: 0-930289-23-4

I enjoyed Y:The Last Man so much, I decided to give another comic book a read. I chose a classic: Watchmen. I understand why it has attained classic status; it was excellent.

Watchmen consisted of twelve different comic serials released over 1986 and 1987. It took place in an alternate New York City, where superheroes existed, cars ran on electricity, and Richard Nixon was president well into the 1980s. The comics began with a murder and the mystery and suspense was so well-crafted, the reader spends the next twelve issues attempting to unravel the gradually disclosed plot.

One problem I sometimes have with any media presented in a serial format, especially TV shows, is a disconnect from one episode to the next or one season to the next. Watchmen did not have that problem at all. Themes, clues, and images were present from the first panel to the last with seemingly every important plot point decided before the first issue was published. That made for a dramatic and cogent read, even as I read all twelve issues in a short time.

The authors didn’t just convey a story; instead, they explored the strengths of the comic book form. Dialogue and thought bubbles were revealing and interesting. For example, one of the superhero characters reflected:

This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips?

Images and forms were used repetitively to create a sense of satisfying symmetry. Panels were detailed and always rewarded a closer look. Additionally, the coloring was fantastic. The comic was not a happy or escapist read and the dark and moody coloring reflected that.

I did have some problems with the book. For example, although the rest of the book was well-paced, the ending felt rushed and unconvincing. Also, the comics contained some pages in prose, which felt unnecessary, although they were interesting. The authors also included almost the entire text of another comic book that one of the characters in Watchmen reads. A comic within a comic; kind of an Inception-type thing. That interior comic went on for way too long.

It’s hard for me to accurately portray a comic book in these reviews because so much of the writing is contextual and I can’t really include images. But I will tell you that the writing was usually interesting and concise and the images were evocative and riveting.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Roobla
Ready Steady Book
IGN

Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

publication date: 2011
pages: 340
ISBN: 978-1-56512-990-0

This taut and sparkling novel focused on an interesting plot: the daughters of a bigamist in 1980s Atlanta. The book began with Dana, a young girl whose Daddy has two wives and two daughters. As Dana navigated being part of her father’s “secret family,” the book explored issues of identity, loyalty, family, and belonging.

Tayari Jones took a compelling plot and told it very well. The introduction and conclusion were well-handled, with just the right amount of intrigue and satisfaction, and the perfect touches of foreshadowing. Also, the climax was one of the best I have read in a while, with impeccable pacing and suspense.

What made this book so exceptional was its infusion of suspenseful plot with pithy explanations of relatable themes. From almost page one, I was wondering about and fretting over what was going to happen next. But meanwhile, Jones filled her pages with rewarding descriptions and observations, such as:

Everyone knows that [being pregnant] is the hardest thing that you can ever tell a man, even if he’s your husband, and my father was someone else’s husband. All you can do is give him the news and let him decide if he is going to leave or if he is going to stay.

Jones also was very funny. For example, this description of a newly befriended teenage boy, which I laughed at but still don’t quite understand:

Mike was Seventeen magazine in the face, but watching him walk away in his Levi’s, I kept thinking “Jack and Diane.”

One theme that I particularly enjoyed was the exploration of the dual lives that teenage girls, and all teenagers, experience. Jones doesn’t shy from the fact that young girls mess around, have sex, and get high just as much as young boys but are still thought of as Daddy’s Little Girl.

One of the few missteps made by Jones was her use of anachronistic terms and phrases. For example, in a portion of the story set in the 1960s, young girls and their families frankly talked about pregnancy and rape, and even used those terms. Now, granted, I was not alive in the 1960s, but people I know who were still don’t talk about those issues sixty years later, and when they do, they use terms like “expecting” and “domestic issues.” Also, some of the descriptions of 1980s Atlanta seemed more like 2010s Atlanta, when the book was written, such as gas pumps with credit card readers and a pre-pay requirement.

I’m torn between giving this book a 4/6 or a 5/6. It is absolutely worth reading and I would recommend it to diverse readers, from those who enjoyed The Help to those who enjoyed Dean Koontz-esque suspense. However, I could imagine someone, somewhere not enjoying it. With all that said, I think I will give it a

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Washington Post
Paste Magazine
Denver Post

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

publication date: 1971
pages: 175
ISBN: 0-380-79185-4

The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction classic, had me hooked from the first haunted sentence:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

With that line, Le Guin began an exploration of the mind’s ability to change the world and humanity’s capacity for power. The book, set in Portland in the very near future, followed George Orr, a troubled young man who was mandated to visit psychiatrist William Haber. While visiting Dr. Haber, Orr confessed that he believes his dreams have the ability to actually change reality. The remainder of the book focused on Dr. Haber’s attempts to “cure” Orr, often with disastrous results.

The plot of The Lathe of Heaven was the focal point. Le Guin created an imaginative future touched with just enough realism to be compelling. Her plot, although implausible, did not seem impossible. Le Guin used her plot, which was infused with a sense of dread throughout, to reflect on man’s foibles.

Because this was a science fiction book, which usually concentrate on plot or message, I was surprised by how satisfying Le Guin’s characters were. Her characters were well-crafted and beautifully explained. Here is her account of Heather LeLache:

Why hadn’t she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn’t have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul.

There were only a few problems I had with the book. First, my edition, a 1997 Avon Books Trade printing, was riddled with spelling errors. There were so many errors I started to wonder if that was part of the book. Second, the pacing lagged slightly in the second half the book. The third and biggest problem I had with the book was Le Guin’s scattered bouts of preachiness. For example, this statement, which seemingly was placed in the book for no other purpose than its message:

The insistent permissiveness of the late Twentieth Century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late Nineteenth Century.

Despite these minor flaws, The Lathe of Heaven is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book:

SF Signal
Pop Mythology
The Canary

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

publication date: 2007
pages: 504 (e-reader edition)
ISBN: 978-1-4169-9575-3

It was this Tumblr post that finally convinced me to read City of Bones, the first book in the Mortal Instruments series. The author of the post really sold me on the book’s complex and detailed world and its engaging characters. After reading it, I’m infinitely glad I did.

City of Bones begins with Clary and her friend, Simon, going out to a seemingly normal club after a seemingly normal day. While at the club, Clary spots Jace, Alec, and Isabelle. Commonplace enough, except Clary is the only one who can see them. Clary follows the three out of the club and so starts her odyssey into the hidden world of Shadowhunters. Clary accompanies Jace, Alec, and Isabelle as they confront demons and devils that live in our midst. A love story develops, of course; this is YA fiction after all.

As described in the Tumblr post, Cassandra Clare creates an exhaustive other world that could be perfectly adapted to the big screen. She imbues the world of the Shadowhunters with plausibility and makes you wonder if maybe, just maybe, people like Jace, Alec, and Isabelle really do exist. Clare also superbly crafts tension and relationships between characters. The book deliciously contains sexual tension between two characters dozens of pages before the tension is acted on. Additionally, the relationship between Jace and his dead father is impressively constructed. In fact, the characters themselves are generally likable or interesting. I loved how Clary wasn’t just another female character who falls head-over-heels in love with someone. Instead, Clary is usually stubborn, defiant, and empowered. However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Clare’s writing is her ability to incorporate not one, but two, of the best plot twists I’ve read this year.

Still, Clare’s writing in not perfect. For example, she starts a chapter with this clunker: “The weapons room looked exactly the way something called ‘the weapons room’ sounded like it would look.” Additionally, the book contains numerous cliches: a clumsy heroine, absent fathers, allusions to – but not actual – cursing (a retort muttered by Alec “sounded a lot more like ‘ducking glass mole’”), and the ever-present simile comparing a young woman’s skin with a bowl of cream.

City of Bones introduces fun characters in an engaging plot with an ending that makes you want to read the next one, which I did. In fact, I read the next five! To anyone who liked Twilight, or even Harry Potter, you will find something to enjoy in the Mortal Instruments series.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Love Vampires
A Librarian’s Library
The Guardian