Saturn Run

“Trust no one, everything breaks, nothing works as advertised, and if anything can go wrong, it will.” (Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein)


I’ve never written a review that includes a spoiler before, but here, there’s no way around it. The whole book succeeds or fails because Sandford kills off the only likable main character early on: the smart-mouthed, mid-western engineer, Becca Johansson. Part of me admires this decision as an incredibly brave choice. It’s brave because it’s realistic: even important people die on dangerous adventures in space. It’s brave because Sandford doesn’t use the death to turn the whole book into a graphic, GOT-like, character-killing fest. It’s brave because he cuts off the only love story in the book before it gets a chance to gain traction.

Yet, while brave and admirable and utterly unpredictable, the reason why most authors don’t kill off their main-and-only-likable characters is that books falter without them. They’re the keystone to readability. After Becca dies, the plot line moves forward mechanically, without the twist of humor that defines the first three quarters. Sandford and Ctein give the book a realism that most genre fiction lacks, but they sacrifice much of what makes the book compelling in the process. Is realism worth that much?

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 496
Ending: Not satisfying; too much about the greed of politics instead of science or philosophy
Incidental Learning: anthropology, space, engineering
Further Reading: This is part of the realistic science fiction movement that was popularized by The Martian

A Room with a View

“Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. the water-tight compartments in her will break down, and the music and life will mingle. Then we shall have her heroically good, heroically bad – too heroic, perhaps to be good or bad.” (A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

I feel as though, given enough time and practice, I could write a similar book to many of the books I’ve read. I don’t mean to say that writing books is easy, or that I’m as talented as any given author, but rather that my thought patterns match the writing and plotting style of most books. They are straight forward; I am straightforward. Given enough time, I could probably write a straightforward book that mostly makes sense. Yet, with books like this one, I feel as though I could never in a dozen lifetimes produce such a work. They are a mix of poetry and wisdom that requires a different kind of soul; a different kind of mind, than I possess. I can merely read these books open-mouthed, without being able to dissect the rhythms or cadence. My talent for prediction fails, my ever-analyzing mind falters, and I simply read without thought.

Though Forster let me dwell in this suspended state for most of the book, to my chagrin, he forced me back into my head at the conclusion. While most of the work seemed a glorious jumble of subtle characters and beautiful prose, Forster wound up to a Point (capital intended) eventually. The philosophic claim made me forget the experience of reading the rest of the book, my mind rewriting the light story into directed arguments and logical lines. Though I usually rail against literature with a Point, in this case, I forgive Forster because he made his so gently, and so wonderfully.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 321
Ending: too cognative
Incidental Learning: Italian painters and culture

The Way We Live Now

“Throughout the world, the more wrong a man does, the more indignant he is at wrong done to him.” (The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope)

If Hetta Carbury and her lazy lover Paul Montague were somehow involved in my life, I would be the mean girl who teased them behind their backs. I can imagine myself being catty over coffee, along with some other gossip-minded friend, calling Hetta boy-crazy and Paul a lackey. “He only likes her because Roger likes her,” I’d say of Paul, and my friend would agree with a knowing smirk. If a rumor about their breakup made its way to us, we would groan and roll our eyes; we’d absolutely refuse to give Paul credit for the audacity of being with another woman. And we’d be right.

In my defense, Trollope himself brings out this mean-girl persona in me. Had he not held up Hetta as the pinnacle of womanly virtue, I probably would not be so angry at her for being insipid. Had he simply created a couple boring characters who happened to triumph over the more interesting ones, I likely wouldn’t have this lingering desire to verbally abuse them in the hopes of making up for the injustice. Instead, Trollope pronounces judgement on his cast, leaving no recourse for the reader who disagrees with his morals. The boring characters prevail because they do nothing objectionable; the interesting ones fail because they’re morally flawed.

And yet, only books that engage the reader’s whole mind can raise such ire. There’s a distinction between being angry at a book and not caring about one; the ones that don’t raise any emotion are the ones we end up quickly forgetting.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Ending: 438
Incidental Learning: Victorian-era England
Further Reading: This reminded me of other moral Victorian works, like Vanity Fair, rather than Trollopes lighter Barsetshire series.

Dirty Job

“Don’t be ridiculous, Charlie, people love the parents who beat their kids in department stores. It’s the ones who just let their kids wreak havoc that everybody hates.” (Dirty Job by Christopher Moore)

I have a vague feeling that I used to read better books. Perhaps its nostalgia for simpler times, but I think not. I just seem to be choosing books that don’t work for me more frequently these days, and then obstinately sticking with them to the end (though I resolved to do the opposite less than a year ago). Here’s my theory: where I used to read exclusively in print, I now read almost all ebooks. The reasons are highly practical and all having to do with the demands of motherhood, but I have come to believe that the process for selecting a book online is just inferior to browsing for a book on a shelf.

When browsing books in a library or at a bookstore, you’re confronted with all the possibilities at once. You can only narrow your search to a specific letter of the alphabet, so the selection process happens with a certain amount of serendipity. You walk down the shelves and a cover attracts you, or you recognize an author’s name someone recommended long ago. You see authors from all genres shoved together unceremoniously, so you’re forced to intuitively make a selection rather than choosing by a preconception about your preferences. When searching, however, you limit your choice with parameters before you even have a chance to think or get inspired. You may find e-books that coincide with your stated preferences, but you’ll get fewer books that surprise you – which leads to less enjoyable reading.

Dirty Job emphasizes atmosphere over every other quality; It feels more like a bunch of bizarre coincidences and one-liners stitched together by a thin over-arching plot than a cohesive novel. Though I input ‘comedy’ as my search criterion to arrive at this selection, I apparently failed to tell google that I mostly find humor in 1920’s British novels, not supernatural thrillers. I laughed only once throughout the entire book. Next time, I’ll be more careful with how I phrase my search. Or better yet, I’ll find a way to toddler-proof my library books so I can read them safely throughout the day.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 405
Ending: Main character dies
Further Reading: The atmosphere of this reminded me of No Bad Deed or the Dresden Files.

Powder Mage Trilogy

“I would die for my country. But I’d rather kill for it. Ready your troops. We march!” (Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan)

The Autumn Republic CoverMy methods for finding books have degraded from carefully browsing bookshelves to hasty google searches. After The Autumn Republic popped up as a good fantasy series, I checked it out on Overdrive and started it without a second thought. I described the book to people as ‘dropping you right in the middle of things’, which impressed me because most fantasy authors are known for agonizingly slow world building. Yet, after McClellan summarized an absurdly complicated backstory in a half-paragraph, I checked the cover again and read the fine print (it was fine print, at least, on my phone): book three of the powder mage trilogy. I had read half of the book without even noticing that it was the finale of a trilogy.

Although this mistake doubtless says a lot about my state of mind lately, it also is indicative of the whole series’ strengths and weaknesses. The trilogy features phenomenal fight and war scenes that one can picture in matrix-like slow-motion detail and that push the reader quickly through the story line, but its recapping is so redundant that you could literally pick up the book anywhere and not be lost. McClellan also succeeds marvelously in building an original magical system, but he then feels the need to remind you of how it works in every scene. I tend to prefer fantasy that respects my ability to remember its rules and plots over the course of a few pages.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 1,888
Ending: Abrupt, over-explained
Incidental Learning: In this new ‘flintlock’ fantasy genre, you learn more about industrial-revolution type inventions
Further Reading: If you like the war aspect, I’d go for Blood Song next. If you like the flintlock aspect, try Mistborn

Memory Man

“Her face held the wonderful enthusiasm of youth as yet unblemished by life. That age was a nice time in anyone’s life. And it was necessary. To get through what was coming in later years. If we all started out cynical, what a shitty world that would be.” (Memory Man by David Baldacci)

memory-manEvery now and then, life calls for a bestseller. It may happen when you’re particularly busy or stressed out, or on the contrary, when you’re bored and need to fill a spare group of hours. Perhaps it’s not every now and then, perhaps your life is always a life that calls for a best seller, and that’s OK too. Best sellers aim to please, they’re not demanding, they don’t require you to dress up in your intellectual best, but merely to come as you are, hot mess and all.

Of all the reading lists I keep stored in the back of my mind, on post it notes, and in various digital files, one of them is made up of bestselling authors. I’d like to read a Roberts, a Baldacci, a Grisham and a Patterson as if they were each their own particular genres. Yet, like many projects, this is not one I have tackled head-on. Instead, I read them here and there. Of Baldacci, I can now say: exceptional pacing; unexceptional plotting. While Baldacci paced the book so fast that I almost didn’t have time to notice, some rather large plot holes (especially in the second book) were unmissable at any speed and, in the end, took away from my overall enjoyment of the series.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: Memory Man: 509 pgs; The Last Mile: 560 pgs
Ending: too sentimental for a man who supposedly has no sentiment
Further Reading: Bestsellers tend to have these same strengths and weaknesses: they move you along, but don’t always make perfect sense. If you liked this one, you’ll have a lot to choose from.

East of Eden

“The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it – how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have.” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all”(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

I believe in a clean first read. I believe that each book should stand on its own, and that secondary criticism and biographical information can come later, after your personal impression has been formed free and clear. However, I had to break my own rule with East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to find out where it fell in Steinbeck’s bibliography. I was certain it had to be a more amateur work than The Grapes of Wrath – it’s meandering, unevenly paced, occasionally obvious, and a whole main character feels flat – but I was entirely wrong. Not only was it a later work, but Wikipedia claims Steinbeck believed it was his best work. Factual bibliography notwithstanding, Grapes constantly won my mind’s Grapes V. East of Eden battle; the former always seeming a more mature, experienced work even though technically written 13 years earlier.

For those who haven’t read it, East of Eden is partially a biography of Steinbeck’s own extended family (he himself is a character as a child) and partially an account of a fictional family. The real family is abbreviated and summarized, packed up nice and tidy, while the fictional family wallows in intricate details that never quite serve to give the sheen of realism Steinbeck seems to be striving for. Yet, even for its flaws, it’s still Steinbeck. It’s still brilliantly written (I attempted to shove no fewer than 25 quotes into this post), still vacillates between the intimate family story and the greater American story, still contains unimpeachable insights into the human soul. Still entirely worth starting and impossible not to finish. And yet, the images that linger in your mind after the book has been shut and returned to the shelf are not as pristine as Grapes, they are marred by the book’s flaws and, perhaps, a slight hint of trying too hard.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 691
Ending: Attempts to pull some themes together. Felt far too moral and symbolic to be satisfying to me. Anyone else get that feeling?
Incidental Learning: history of Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s extended family
Further Reading: Grapes of Wrath