Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson

The Bookshop of Yesterdays

A love letter to reading, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is both enjoyable and disappointing at the same time. Miranda, the narrator, unexpectedly inherits a bookstore from her quirky uncle Billy and a scavenger hunt to boot. While the characters are paper thin and largely selfish, the quest for answers is oddly compelling. Each step in the hunt started with a few lines from a literary classic—The Tempest, Frankenstein, Fear of Flying, Bridge to Terabithia, and so on—and led to an important person in her uncle's past, each holding a clue to the reason for the abrupt fallout between Billy and her mother years ago. The story is pretty repetitive: decipher the clue, find the book, locate the person, learn something new about Billy, obtain the next clue. All this leads to a conclusion that seemed obvious to me a third of the way through, but still comes of as satisfying. Luckily, the clear love of literature and solid writing help overcome the monotonous story and unlikeable characters. Hard to recommend, but hard to pan as well. It did make me want to go hang out at a independent bookstore, though!

First Sentence:
The last time I saw my uncle, he bought me a dog.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)

Another 1100+ page book, still seemingly nowhere near a conclusion. And, frustratingly, after finishing this I discovered that despite being published in 2011 the final entry in the trilogy hasn't yet been completed. That is a lot of time invested in an incomplete story!

To be fair, though, Rothfuss has penned another good tale, although it could have used some serious editing. At one point there is a huge adventure while traveling between two distant lands that is disposed of over the course of a few sentences—"Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man's shoes, and recited poetry. ... Over the last two span everything I owned had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or abandoned."—whereas later in the narrative there is a fairly uninteresting adventure that takes twenty chapters to fully relate. While meandering, though, the world building here is once again excellent.

When discussing how magic in this world works one of the character asks, "Where does the extra energy go?" How often does an author consider kinetic and thermal energy when designing a magic system? Another fascinating touch is a language that in addition to spoken words uses hand signals to convey emotion and context. When reading, I couldn't shake the idea that this is how emojis would work if somehow incorporated into our verbal communications.

While I enjoyed this novel, it is covered with the stink of "second book in a trilogy." A heck of a lot of things happen, but everything is simply building slowly to the conclusion in the final entry. As a bridge book it isn't bad at all, but with the finale not yet written it seems to suffer quite a bit. Worth reading, but you might want to wait until the final chapter is published!

First Sentence:
Bast slouched against the long stretch of mahogany bar, bored.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Set in the American South of the 1960s, this is a book with Jim Crow at its heart. Racism and unfairness saturate each page, coupled with sadness and misery, cruelty and inequity. Amazingly, the spirit of the main two boys keeps the story from becoming depressing, and in fact, was quite an engaging and even uplifting read.

Based loosely on the real-world Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Florida that was violently abusive to its charges for virtually all of the 111 years it was open, The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis and his friend Turner. While violent, the dignity and dedication to survival the boys possess prevail over the casual racism shown by not just the craven staff, but the rest of the world in general. "They had whipped Elwood. But he took the whipping and he was still here. There was nothing they could do that white people hadn't done to black people before, were not doing at this moment in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, in broad daylight on a city street outside Woolworths." (Sadly, racism hasn't been vanquished in the decades since segregation fell out of favor, but simply driven underground until the recent rise of the alt-right and its seeming embrace by the Republican Party. It is hard not to read this book and see the parallels to what is happening today in migrant detention camps.)

The surprisingly short book is broken into three parts: the first two parts are presented sequentially and in a straightforward manner, but the third starts jumping backwards and forwards in time causing the narrative to be a bit hard to follow. This change in style makes sense once reaching the epilogue, but until then the chapter breaks can be a bit jarring. Entertaining seems an odd word to use for such a bleak plot, but I did truly enjoy reading this thought provoking novel.

First Sentence:
Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.

Friday, February 07, 2020

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, by Leonard Goldberg

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries #1)

In 1914 Sherlock Holmes dies, but Dr. Watson lives on at 221b Baker Street. Unbeknownst to anyone save Watson, Holmes had a daughter with Irene Adler due to a singular night of passion. This daughter, Joanna Blalock, was adopted immediately after her birth (Adler died during childbirth) with her true parentage unknown. However, she has inherited Sherlock's keen observational skills and eidetic memory and so when she crosses paths with Watson and his son she gets pulled into a mystery, quickly taking the lead with her deductions.

This is a very "Sherlockian" tale, with a very straightforward plot and many, many asides where facts are determined by deduction that is beyond anyone but Joanna. Once you accept the coincidental notion that virtually every main player is a descendant of someone from Holmes lore—besides Watson's son and Blalock, Lestrade's son is now a police detective and the villain is the son of Colonel Sebastian Moran, a criminal with whom Holmes crossed paths—the story is quite entertaining. There are a few odd asides, such as a short history of the Rosetta Stone for no apparent reason, but overall quite charming.

The book is positively riddled with nods to the Conan Doyle stories, some obvious and some not so much. One throwaway line from Blalock towards the end really caught my attention: "I have read about a chap in Paris who uses my methods, and they say he is quite good." As this takes place after the Holmes chronicles, I don't think this is referring to a Conan Doyle character, but instead to some other contemporary literary sleuth. Joseph Rouletabille seems a likely suspect, but Arsène Lupin would be a good choice as well (although being a thief some of the symmetry with Holmes is lost).

Not amazing, but enjoyable; a nice homage to the classic Sherlock Holmes epics.

First Sentence:
As was my custom, I visited my father, Dr. John H. Watson, every Friday to make sure he was comfortable and not in need.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Endgames, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Endgames (Imager Portfolio, #12)

Unlike most of the Imager Portfolio, the plot here is more political than magical. The times, they are a changin', and the land of Solidar is experiencing an industrial revolution which in turn is causing the rank and file workers and crafters to lose their jobs to cheap imports and increasingly mass-manufactured goods. The ruling class is struggling to maintain their civic dominance, and the new middle class of factory owners and bankers are just tasting power for the first time and reluctant to give in to the rioting lower class people. The ruler over all this recognizes that change needs to happen and is slowly trying to modify the government to include representation from everyone, causing broad strife and upheaval (and a few assassination attempts).

The plot is rather pedestrian for Modesitt, with heavy introspection and long descriptions of practicing a musical instrument rather than battles, action, and intrigue. That said, the debate on a minimum wage was pretty interesting as was the one on church versus state. The arguments on either side largely came from two sources: negotiations in council meetings and the press. The players in council had fairly predictable points of view with the king forcing a compromise, but more fascinating was the role the press had in reporting the results of the meetings (not having access to the discussions, just the outcomes). There are two newspapers, one reasonably fair and unemotional, and the other radical and biased (think AP vs. Fox News). This dichotomy demonstrated quite well how people can and will spin situations according to their own worldview, facts be damned. Modesitt's exploration of the proper limits of power and the role of economics in social change was not only compelling, but very appropriate with our real-world political situation.

While well-written and entertaining, this novel is a bit disappointing simply because the actual magic takes a back seat to politics. It felt a little more like a separate, parallel story set in the same universe as the other books than the conclusion to the entire series. If you are looking for a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of world-building and exposition, this is a great choice. If you are looking for an exciting adventure with battling magicians and powerful villains, maybe look elsewhere.

First Sentence:
On Lundi morning, the sixteenth of Juyn, Charyn was up earlier than usual, most likely because the day promised to be particularly hot, a reminder that the first days of spring, heralded by the Spring-Turn Ball, were some three months gone, and there wasn't that much of summer left.

Search This Blog