Paul’s Book Reviews

“I told Agustus the broad outline of my miracle: diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen. (I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.) It was, we were told, incurable.” — The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

a feast for crowsA Feast for Crows (Game of Thrones # 4)
George R.R. Martin
3_0

I devoured the first three Game of Thrones novels, rating each of them four stars, but found this one less tasty. Why? There’s not a word in this 775-page doorstopper about four important characters left hanging from cliffs at the end of GOT #3, A Storm of Swords: John Snow, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.

In an afterword, George R.R. Martin explains how he came to split his fourth GOT novel, which was rapidly growing beyond 1,000 pages, into two, and assures readers that in GOT #5, A Dance with Dragons, we’ll catch up with the aforementioned characters. In fact, he explains that the time period experienced by the characters who inhabit GOT #5 will be the same time period experienced by the characters inhabiting GOT #4. I suppose it was a sensible decision, but still it’s a jarring one … perhaps George should have made his afterword a preface.

In comparison to the first three GOT novels, this one drags a bit, being largely concerned with a host of lesser characters acting out subplots on the fringes of Westeros. Oh, sure, many chapters follow the unfolding stories of Cersei, Jamie, Sansa, Arya, Brienne, and Samwell, all of whom move the main plot along smartly, but these make the chapters devoted to lesser characters and subplots seem, in comparison, like filler. Also: is it just me, or is there an overabundance of courtly Monty Pythonish kniggit talk in A Feast for Crows? I’m up to here with sigils and shields and Valyrian longswords with names and courtly lineages and Good Ser This and Good Ser That.

And yet I couldn’t put it down. Salman Rushdie’s memoir (reviewed below), which I read during breaks from A Feast for Crows, is more interesting. So why not put the draggy GOT novel down and finish the better book? I can’t explain why I couldn’t, but there it is. Apparently my appetite for courtly kniggit talk is stronger than I knew.

If your reaction to the first three GOT novels was as strongly positive as mine, you may be tempted to skim through this one, or even put it aside. Don’t. Even though a lot of it is concerned with lesser characters, the Cersei/Jamie/Sansa/Arya/Brienne/Samwell threads are riveting, and a major part of this ongoing story. It may be a little harder to read, but it’s very much worth it.

joseph antonJoseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie
3_0

Well, here I am, two books into this collection of reviews, and already caught out in a lie. I read Rushdie’s memoir during breaks from A Feast for Crows (reviewed above) but didn’t finish it, despite claiming it to be the better and more interesting of the two. In my defense, my claim was true the first 300 pages of Rushdie’s memoir, but then it became repetitive and I began to feel I had read enough.

I shouldn’t rate a book I didn’t finish, but I did read half before deciding I wouldn’t get much more out of the remaining pages. The writing is of a very high quality, hence the three-star rating. The subject matter — Salman Rushdie’s life during the fatwa years (which, technically, are still going on) — is compellingly interesting, at least at first. Rushdie’s massive ego got in the way, though, and became ever more off-putting the deeper I got into his memoir. Several reviewers complain of name-dropping. I didn’t mind that at first, since Rushdie moves in literary circles and I’m a great fan of many of the authors he gossips about, but after a while that too began to wear. He treats his enemies harshly, and one cannot approve of the way he treats his wives and lovers. Overall, I came to this memoir prepared to like Salman Rushdie. I came away with an appreciation of Rushdie’s interesting, brilliant mind, but no fondness for the man himself.

the fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars
John Green
3_5

I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska because I enjoy both young adult literature and banned books (Alaska was challenged by parent groups around the country because it included a sex scene). I was very impressed with Green’s writing, so when The Fault in Our Stars came out I put it on my to-read list as well.

To my knowledge, The Fault in Our Stars has not yet been challenged or banned, but there is a growing parental movement against “dark books” aimed at young readers, and concern over a type of YA literature sometimes labeled “sick lit.” This novel is about teenagers suffering from cancer. Teenagers who will die (sorry if that’s a spoiler). As such, Green’s novel is both dark and sick, and I expect it is only a matter of time until some parent or religious group demands it be removed from a school library or a high school English class reading list.

Why would religious people challenge this book? I once heard a doctor say his belief in god didn’t survive his first encounter with pediatric cancer (just as my faith died when I learned about Ann Frank). The characters in this novel have lost whatever specific religious beliefs they might once have held. Yes, they cling to a vague spiritualism, a belief in something larger than themselves, but Jesus is notably absent from their lives. That right there is more than enough reason for religious groups to oppose The Fault in Our Stars. There is also a Judy Blume-ish sex scene in the book, and that is sure to draw a challenge as well. For those reasons, I’m adding a peremptory banned book tag to this review.

So, to the book. Is it good? Yes, it is every bit as good as Looking for Alaska. Green pulls you into his teenaged characters’ lives, into their innermost thoughts and fears, and you finish this book feeling almost as if they were your own siblings, your own first loves, or … if you are a parent … your own children. Is it sad? Yes, it’s heartbreaking. Is there anything to be learned from this novel? I suppose so, if “pediatric cancer sucks” counts as a life lesson.

So, why three and a half stars and not four? After all, I gave four to Looking for Alaska. Alaska felt more real to me, I guess. Not that there’s anything not real about kids with cancer; not that they don’t deserve to have a sympathetic novel written about what they go through before they die; not that we don’t need to understand the disease and how it affects its victims and those who love them … no, it’s more that there’s nothing we can do about it other than to cry, and that this novel seems to have only one purpose: to make readers cry.

the alchemistThe Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi
2_5

I rated other Paolo Bacigalupi novels at four and four-and-a-half stars. The Alchemist, I’m sad to say, struck me as a lesser work, and I was disappointed in it. The writing is up to snuff, but the story itself is very short (I read it in an evening) and I kept feeling there should have been more. Bacigalupi’s other novels are based on solid environmental science and present believable future societies and worlds. This one is a fantasy, an Arabian Nights tale about a world where magic (literally, flying carpets and cloud castles) is widely practiced until an unfortunate side-effect kicks in: a world-consuming bramble that grows every time magic is practiced and comes to threaten human life itself. The bramble is consistent with Bacigalupi’s science fiction (it made me think of his genetically-modified crops gone wild); magic is not. Now this is just me: I am not a fan of fantasy, and that aspect of the story leaves me cold. I recognize that fantasy lovers might have a completely different reaction to this story … but I personally hope Bacigalupi returns to science fiction.

slatedSlated (Slated # 1)
Teri Terry
3_0

This is a pretty good start to a series of dystopian YA novels. I understand a movie is already in the works, and it’s not hard to envision it as another Hunger Games. The story is set in a future V for Vendetta-ish London, a society where people are rigidly controlled by lorders (law & order forces), a society where malcontents and dissidents are hunted down and “disappeared” in most interesting ways. Younger ones are “slated,” their memories wiped clean, then reintroduced to society. Older ones are … well, who knows? This novel introduces the scenario and the engaging young protagonist, a 16-year-old girl named Kyla, but it doesn’t take the reader down all the plot paths introduced here. Presumably the ins & outs of disappearing, termination, and slating will be explored in sequels. And that’s fine! There’s plenty here to chew on, and Kyla is a fascinating character who is ominously not at all like other slated kids. You know she’s going to make an impact on society, but she’s just learning her own strength in this first novel.

Teri Terry’s writing is average. At least one Goodreads reader/reviewer commented on Kyla’s habit of “jumping” whenever she is startled. She never twitches, flinches, goes white, or starts … she “jumps,” over and over. I suspect Terry’s writing will improve as she develops this series, much as J.K. Rowling’s writing improved as she got deeper into the Harry Potter saga.

The second novel in the series is out. It’s called Fractured and I very much want to read it, but it’s not yet available as an ebook. What the hell is up with that, publisher? The first one is on my Nook and that’s where I want to second one to be as well. Get on that, okay?

live by nightLive by Night
Dennis Lehane
3_0

Dennis Lehane’s 1920s prohibition-era crime novel takes a minor character from a previous novel, The Given Day, and follows his rum-running and organized crime career in Boston and Tampa. My reaction to this character, Joe Coughlin, was sort of meh. Even in his own novel he continues to feel like a minor player, making Live by Night seem less a destination than a detour. Nor is Joe Coughlin particularly believable, afflicted as he is with a soft heart that in any other organized crime novel would have gotten him whacked before the end of the first chapter. This is not Lehane’s strongest novel, but if you suspend your disbelief in Joe Coughlin’s unlikely survival as a crime figure, it’s enjoyable enough.

As an aside, I’m disappointed Lehane hasn’t yet tackled the Tulsa race riot of 1921. He dangled a hook in The Given Day, and does so again here, but I guess it remains a subject for a future novel. I hope so, at any rate: I know Lehane’s the writer who can bring that shameful and deliberately-hidden part of American history to life.

– See all my reviews

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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