The Dry

Jane Harper’s The Dry has gotten insanely good reviews. And I just don’t know why. It’s a fine book but there’s nothing outstanding about it.

Murder mysteries, like most established genres, have a pretty set formula. The Dry follows this formula almost to the letter. The mystery itself isn’t predictable (I didn’t figure it out), but the novel is.

Brutal murder shocks small town…check
Main character return to hometown for funeral intending to leave asap…check
Main character doesn’t leave asap…check

Aaron Falk was forced to leave town quickly as a teenager after being suspected of murder. Now he’s returned for his former best friend’s funeral, and is literally counting the hours until he can get back to Melbourne. Everyone believes that Luke murdered his wife and son before killing himself, but Luke’s parents beg Aaron to stay in town a few extra days and prove that Luke didn’t do it. Aaron reluctantly agrees, joins forces with the local cop, and faces his past while solving the mystery.

Harper does a good job of laying a trail of clues that keeps the reader guessing until the truth is revealed. It’s a solid case and the murder from Aaron’s past keeps rearing its ugly head to keep things interesting. There’s a satisfying conclusion, though it’s a bit depressing, which is only to be expected from a crime that includes the murder of a little boy. The weak point of the story was the budding romance between Aaron and Gretchen, which I really didn’t care about.

All in all, I’ll give it 3 out of 5 stars. As I said, solid but not spectacular.

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The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

This book had me at super-powered female assassins. Or, really, it had me at THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK!, which is kind of hard to overlook when its sprawled in giant letters across the cover of a book covered in asterisks and lightning bolts. It looks like a fun book and it sounds like a fun story.

It lies. This book disturbed me on a rather deep level. I finished it the day after I read Nimona, which didn’t help since they both have startling similar premises. What do you do when an organization dedicated to doing good turns out to have corrupt leaders? Who do you cheer for when the splinter group fighting back against the corruption turns out to be kind of corrupt itself?

Who do you cheer for when both sides and right and both sides are wrong?

Manuel Gonzales wrote a fantastic book. The characters are well done, the story is well paced, the prose is well-written. And yet I kind of wish I hadn’t read it. I want a hero to cheer for. I want a villain to hate. I don’t want to feel torn between two heroines who are remarkably similar and both duped by their respective leadership.

I like books that make me happy. Books that affirm that good always wins and that things have a way of working out in the end and that people have a natural tendency to do the right thing. But we need books like this. As unsettling as I found The Regional Office Is Under Attack! I think everyone should read it.

Because our world is very gray. We like to think that we are the heroes and those who don’t agree with us are villains, but it doesn’t really work like that. Most of us are just trying to do what we think it best and hope we don’t hurt too many people in the process. If you’re a super-powered assassin, that’s a but harder to do, but most of them still try.

Manuel Gonzales makes you see both sides of a battle where nobody wins and you realize how much better it would have been if people had just been honest with each other and become friends and joined forces to fight against the real villains.

Sarah and Rose never got that chance. It’s kind of depressing and I don’t really like depressing books. But it makes you think, and more people need to take some time to think about how their story looks from the opposite point of view. To realize that the world is not black and white but full of all kinds of murky gray areas. To look beyond the person who doesn’t agree with you and try to find the real villain and discover a way we can settle our differences peacefully and then go after them.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is not the fun book I thought it would be. It’s pretty bloody and light on the humor and dissatisfying in its resolution. Somehow it still gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Reckoning of Dragons

Rob May’s epic fantasy trilogy made for a quick and entertaining read. Even though there were things about it that I didn’t love, one thing made it some of the best fantasy I have ever read: Kal Moonheart is the epic heroine I never knew I wanted until I found her.

We’re all familiar with the character who is living a quiet life and only wants to be left alone until some cataclysmic event forces them to take action and save the world. It’s noble of them, really. But as they hope from danger to danger, it gets harder to believe that they’re doing everything they can to avoid excitement. The lady doth protest too much.

And then there’s Kal. She will leap headfirst into trouble for no other reason than to see what happens. She’s largely motivated by money, though she does have enough of a conscience to help a friend out. Strangers can fend for themselves. Kal isn’t looking forward to finishing one last dangerous task and then retiring to the quiet life. The quiet life bores her silly and has her investigating dangerous intrigues just to break up the monotony.

May’s other characters are equally three-dimensional and interesting. I highly encourage aspiring writers to read this series as an example of how to develop good characters. They all have positive and negative traits, making me like all of them, even if I kind of hated them too.

The one thing I did not like about this book: the ending left me wanting more. There are many more stories to tell with this world. As far as I can tell, Rob May isn’t working on any new books with these characters at the moment, but a girl can hope.

 

(In)Eligible: A Modern Pride and Prejudice

To be fair to Curtis Sittenfeld before I start reviewing her version of Pride and Prejudice, I think retelling someone else’s story in a new setting is really difficult. With that being said, I didn’t really like Eligible.

It started out strong. I thought she captured the Bennet family well, and I found Mr. Bennet extremely entertaining. I thought having Elizabeth and Jane move back home to help in the wake of their father’s health scare was a brilliant way to get all the sisters back under one roof while still differentiating between the younger, free-loading, dead-beat Bennet sisters and the responsible elder two.

 

For all of its promising set up, however, the book fell flat on delivery. Elizabeth takes it upon herself to clean out her parent’s home and put it on the market, as the family can no longer afford to maintain the house. This is supposed to be her shouldering responsibility, but to me that’s just overstepping your bounds. You can’t sell someone’s house behind their back and insist you were just doing what was best for them.

Aside from her interfering in everyone’s life, Elizabeth also lost quite a bit of my respect when she had an on-going affair with a married man. In Austen’s novel, Wickham fools everyone into believing he’s a great guy before Darcy reveals the truth about him. Sittenfeld’s Jasper Wick is just a scumbag and he really drags Elizabeth down with him.

Jane, who is supposed to be the other admirable sister, struck me as something of a non-entity. You’re supposed to root for her and Chip to get together, but I wasn’t real invested there. Part of the fault there lies with Chip. He was a very weak character. In the original story, he gets accused of just doing whatever he is told, but he comes across as a genuinely nice guy who’s just trying to make people happy. In Eligible, it seems more like he can’t make a decision so he just follows orders.

Mr. Darcy, of all people, comes out as the nicest person in the novel. He has never been my favorite Austen hero (Mr. Kingsley for the win!), but I found myself entirely on his side throughout Eligible.

All in all, I would give this 2 out of 5 stars. If you want to read Pride and Prejudice, then just go read Pride and Prejudice.

Twenty Sided Sorceress Recommendation

After just finishing A Promise of Fire and trying to hold off on book 2 of the Kingmaker Chronicles until we’re closer to book 3’s release date, I turned to a more complete series to help pass the time. The Twenty Sided Sorceress series is on book 8 (Dungeon Crawl, which is brand new) and still going.

I’ve only read the first three books of this series to date, but so far I like them. The series is urban fantasy, which I always kind of sneered at for some inexplicable reason before reading Justice Calling (book 1 of this series) and discovering that I liked it.

Jade Crow is a sorceress who channels her magic through Dungeon and Dragons spells. Her magic technically doesn’t have any limits, but she’s still figuring out how to use them. Or, more accurately, she is repressing them as hard as she can because her ex-lover, another sorcerer, is trying to find her and eat her heart because that’s how sorcerers get more power. And you thought your love life was bad.

I waited a long time after reading book one to read book two, but the important points came back quickly. I’m still a little fuzzy on some of book one’s details, but I could follow along with book two and three no problem. With that being said, this is a series you’re going to want to read in order. And also, this is a series you’re going to want to read.

A Promise of Fire Shows Promise

Amanda Bouchet’s debut novel, A Promise of Fire is a strong start to a writing career. While there wasn’t anything about the book to launch it into timeless favorite status, it’s a good story that I devoured in one day.

Cat is living a quiet life in the circus, hiding from her past, when warlord Griffin Sinta, recent conqueror of one-third of the world, shows up and outs her as the Kingmaker, a person with powerful magic.  I don’t want to discourage you on reading this book too soon, but I also want to end on a high note, so let’s do the cons first.

CONS

First off, I have to admit that I did not look at the cover as closely as I should have. The book is clearly marketed as fantasy romance.

a-promise-of-fire

Missing that, I launched into this story expecting epic fantasy. Which is exactly what I got until it somehow turned into a romance novel, though it still had hefty doses of epicness sprinkled throughout.

While I can’t complain about something I should have known before reading the book, I do feel like the romance created pacing issues. Cat’s fighting a dragon! Cat’s…not sure how she feels about Griffin kissing her? Cat’s taking out 30 men single-handedly! Cat’s…reluctantly admitting that she doesn’t hate Griffin even though it’s pretty obvious she doesn’t after repeatedly almost dying to save his life. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

Cat is almost unkillable, but she nevertheless has a ridiculous series of near-death experiences. The problem with this is, each time you do this, it loses some of its punch. The first time Cat almost dies, it means something. By the end of the book, it’s become part of a cycle. Stop milking it Cat, you’ve had worse. Suck it up and go fight with Griffin some more.

I hope leading with the cons didn’t turn you off too soon. I would say this book’s flaws mainly boil down to romance and fantasy both being rather predictable genres. But don’t stop reading now because even though A Promise of Fire falls into a couple of pit holes, it avoids other ones spectacularly and we are just now getting to the good part.

PROS

A pretty basic but good starting point here is that I like Cat. She has some fairly stereotypical traits, like a dark past that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length and an excessive use of sarcasm, but they fit her story. And even though she’s almost immediately attracted to Griffin, it takes her a while to get over the fact that he literally abducts her from her home. Everyone else acts like she’s being unreasonable about this, but I think she has a good point. Her god (actually a god) father Poseidon plays a huge role in this abduction, which saves Griffin from being the bad guy, which is the normal role for a kidnapper.

Another thing I like about this story is that magic makes sense. As you may have guessed from Poseidon showing up, Greek mythology makes up a huge chunk of this world. It saves Bouchet from having to explain everything to her readers, which usually bogs down a story. It also provides a framework so things can pop up unexpectedly without feeling like they came out of nowhere.

These are great things, but I think Bouchet’s best accomplishment in this novel is her flow of information. One of my greatest pet peeves when reading fantasy is when I feel like I’m not being told something important for no good reason. Cat’s past is dribbled out throughout the book, but I never feel like I should know things about her that I don’t. At the end of the book we still don’t know everything (book 2 is out: Breath of Fire) but we’ve been given enough information to fill in the larger gaps, even if it hasn’t all been spelled out for us yet.

Cat and Griffin’s story might be somewhat predictable, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable read. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

Books for Babies

As I mentioned in my previous post on literacy, being illiterate doesn’t just mean leaving a paperback out of your beach bag. The cycle of illiteracy affects society as a whole as it impacts employment rates and incarceration levels. On a personal level, adults who are functionally illiterate cannot read maps, complete a job application, fill out an insurance form, or understand the directions on their medication.

Research into literacy shows that it is never too early to start breaking this cycle. From the day they are born (and even a little before then) babies benefit from being read to. Not only do they exhibit better language skills as they get older (unsurprisingly), children who are read to as babies have higher math scores as well.

Books for Babies is a national literacy program that is working to make books available to all families. Parents of newborns are given a kit that contains tips for reading to babies, literacy information, a board book, and a library card.

Having just discovered this program myself, I’ll be looking into it and reporting back with my findings. In the meantime, feel free to do some digging on your own and see what early literacy programs your community has. Your local library is a great place to start. If they don’t have any programs currently, you can start one! The Books for Babies website linked to above is a great place to look for advice on getting started.

14% of the American population is illiterate.

You can help change that.

Would I Recommend Yann Martel?

After recently reading and reviewing Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal, I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it.

It’s a very well written book. There’s no arguing with that. You feel like you’re jolting down the back roads of rural Portugal in an early automobile while you’re reading it. Or sitting in a morgue late at night. Or driving back home wondering why the heck you just bought a chimpanzee. Even though I’ve never done any of those things.

Martel captures the emotions of his characters very well, and by doing so he captures the reader just as tight. I struggled a little to get into the book, but once I was hooked I couldn’t put it down. Despite the excellent writing and the captivating characters, when I got to the end, I wasn’t quite satisfied.

I think leaving his readers unsatisfied is part of the fun for Martel. He did the same thing in Life of Pi. And while I admire his writing, I prefer my leisure reading to leave me more settled than his does. It sticks with you, which is always a compliment to any author, but not in a comfortable way.

One of the things they teach you about creative writing is that it’s okay to leave strings dangling. Leaving some things unresolved adds to the illusion that the world inside the book continues on after the last page. But I think Martel takes it too far the other way. One week after I finished reading his book, and I still feel like I need some closure.

So would I recommend Yann Martel? Sure, if you want to read a well written book that’s going to take you by surprise. But if you’re looking for something to leave you happy and contented when you reach the conclusion, this isn’t it.

Talking As Fast As I Can

Image result for lauren graham talking as fast as i can

Talking As Fast As I Can is Lauren Graham’s collection of essays that mostly deals with what it was like to star on Gilmore Girls twice. The title fits because, as you will already know if you’re familiar with the show, there is so much dialogue packed into each episode that I’m pretty sure they had to take breaks between scenes for the actors to catch their breath.

Maybe the title helped set the mood, or maybe I just can’t separate Lauren Graham from Lorelai Gilmore in my head, but I felt like Lorelai Gilmore was reading this book to me. If that was Lauren Graham’s goal: well done! If not, it was a nice side benefit.

I enjoyed this essay collection. It was mostly light-hearted reminiscing, which is all I really want out of a book like this. I’m not a fan of celebrity books that get philosophical. I just want to laugh at your quirky journey to Hollywood star. And, for the most part, Graham delivers.

Her return to Gilmore Girls for A Year in the Life was my least favorite part of the book. While I understand that returning to the role that gave her her first big break could be an emotional experience, I could have done with less emotional overflow in the book. But that’s just me. My family tends to minimize emotional displays. Unless I know you very well, I’d like for you to do likewise.

I wouldn’t call this book a stunning masterpiece, (sorry, Lauren!) but reading it was enjoyable and what more do you want from a book? If you’re a fan of Lauren Graham, I recommend this book to you. If you’re a fan of celebrity memoirs/essays, I recommend this book to you. If neither of the above applies to you, then, no, this is not the book for you. But you can finish it in one afternoon, so if you’re looking for something different, go ahead, give this book a read.

The High Mountains of Portugal Review

the-high-mountains-of-portugal

Well, this book surprised me. Mostly because it didn’t surprise me. Remember that ridiculous prediction I made about the chimp? Turns out it wasn’t so ridiculous. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This book starts out following Tomás in the wake of his family’s death. Within one week he loses the woman he loves, his child, and his father. Understandably, it leaves him a bit damaged. As a way to express his grief, he starts walking backward. I didn’t really get it, but we all grieve differently, right?

While working on some old records, Tomás finds a priest’s diary and becomes obsessed with a relic that the priest designed. He borrows his uncle’s automobile (it’s 1904, so they’re pretty new) and sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal to find this relic. His uncle’s driving instructions are hilariously brief. Pull this lever, push this pedal, and you’re good to go. See you in ten days.

Tomás hates the automobile, but it’s the only way he can make it to his destination and back home in the time he has off from work. Yann Martel does an excellent job of making you feel as though you are jolting along the rural roads of Portugal with Tomás. It is excellent writing. It’s not exactly comfortable reading.

Also, it drags on. Tomás doesn’t make it to his destination and back in ten days. In fact, it takes him that long just to reach the High Mountains of Portugal, which, by the way, doesn’t have any mountains. Tomás is having a mental breakdown during this journey, and while it’s described masterfully, I got tired of reading about a man fighting with his car and scratching his lice and sobbing into the elephant-leather seats.

There are some high points. In one village a woman threatens to feed him to a dog and then eat the dog. I’ll give her top marks for originality. I might have to use that threat someday. The excerpts from the priest’s diary really make you want to know what this relic is that Tomás is chasing. Finally we learn that it is a crucifix, but one that will shake Christendom to its core. Tomás believes that bringing this relic to life will destroy people’s faith, just as his has been destroyed by the death of his family.

In his very lowest point, Tomás hits and kills a child with his automobile. It really is not his fault, but rather than face what he has done he flees down the road, his guilt now hastening his complete collapse. He finally makes it to the village that holds the crucifix, which depicts a chimpanzee on the cross, rather than a man. The villagers dismiss Tomás’s claim, believing instead that the figure on the crucifix is oddly proportioned because it was meant to be viewed from below, and the artist was attempting to correct the distortion from that perspective. Also, Tomás is not a very credible figure at the moment. He collapses outside the church and his part of the story ends.

I was honestly pretty relieved to leave Tomás behind. I felt some sympathy for him, but I still didn’t like him much. And my feelings for him completely dried up after he left a child lying in the road. The urge to flee is an understandable and very human reaction. It’s also despicable.

We leap ahead 35 years to the morgue in Bragança, Portugal. Eusebio Lozora is the pathologist there. He is working late at night on December 31st, 1938, attempting to catch up on his paperwork. He is interrupted by his wife, who drops in with some books and a bottle of wine. I love this woman already.

They have a very entertaining discussion about theology and Agatha Christie and how the Gospel story is like a murder mystery. It’s more of a monologue really, with Eusebio nodding along to his wife’s thoughts. This is my favorite scene of the book.

Eusebio’s wife finally leaves and he tries to get back to work, only to be interrupted by another woman. A widow has dragged her dead husband down from the High Mountains of Portugal for him to perform an autopsy. Eusebio cuts the body open to find that the man is filled with an odd assortment of things from vomit to feathers to children’s toys. I was fairly certain that either Martel or myself was hallucinating.

It turns out, neither of us were, but Eusebio was. The woman who transcribes his autopsies comes in the next morning to find him passed out at his desk. She is worried about him, ever since his wife died recently. He is not handling the grief well.

Despite the fact that the autopsy never happened (OR DID IT?!?) some interesting facts come to light. The widow tells Eusebio that she and her husband had a son, who was killed when he was five years old. He was out of town with his father, who had gone on a trip for work. He was discovered, miles from where he should have been, dead on the road.

To continue our triad of widowers, we jump to 1988 and across an ocean. Canadian Senator Peter Tovy has just lost his wife. He drifts around for a while, buys a chimpanzee on impulse, and moves to Portugal to explore his roots. He goes back to the village his parents left when he was three years old, in the High Mountains of Portugal.

With surprisingly little difficulty, Peter settles into his new life with no electricity and a simian roommate. He lives this simple existence for two years, learning how to exist only in the present from his chimp.

One day he discovers a suitcase full of odd things (the same things that were found in the body during the autopsy of part 2). While investigating the contents, he learns that the house he is living in is his old family residence. This leads to the discovery that his mother’s cousin, who was killed when he was only five, has become a sort of local saint women pray to when they’re having trouble conceiving. Also, the crucifix hanging in the local church looks oddly like a chimp.

Peter, who has a bad heart, then takes a long walk with his chimpanzee and dies out on the plateau of the High Mountains of Portugal. The End.

As I said, this book is masterfully written. Yann Martel excels at subtlety. Little things tie all the sections together, such as walking backwards to express grief. It also has touches that will feel familiar to fans of Life of Pi, such as animals who straddle the line between characters and symbols. There’s also an ambiguity about what is really happening and what the characters are imagining. If I was grading the writing, I would give this a 9/10.

When it comes to enjoyability, the grade falls to about 6.5. On the one hand, I like that Martel doesn’t feel the need to spell every little detail out for his readers. On the other hand, the fact that he sets up important moments and then just lets them hang there creates a lack of resolution that I find unsettling. Just tell me what happened already!

I admire Yann Martel’s writing, but I don’t know that I like reading his books. And I think he might take that as a compliment. I certainly don’t mean it as an insult. I think it’s okay for books to leave you a little uncomfortable. But it isn’t what you’re looking for when you just want to curl up in front of the fire with a mug of tea.