Friday, November 25, 2011

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neverwhere is one of those books that answers the 'what if' question about the city in which you live your days, going through your admittedly 'mundane' routines. In this case, London. What if there was a London Below, a strange world which consists of Underground railways, tunnels, sewers, and sometimes uncannily parallels the London that the average inhabitant thought they knew but didn't, and in a way that seems a lot more interesting? It's a scary place, not terribly clean and sanitary. But it's also a place of wonders. If you spent some time there, would you find yourself, and realize that the normal world just doesn't hold the same charm for you, now that you've realized the possibilities? With this book, you can ponder these questions for yourself through the viewpoint of Richard Mayhew.

The unknown is scary for us. Scary, but also exciting. You just have to find the courage to seek it out. That's one thing I love about books. They take me places that I'm not sure I'd want to go in real life. And in the process, they make me want to be braver than I am. Richard has to find that courage (the hard way), but he becomes a hero and a champion in his own right in the process of his journey. He faces pain, loss, and uncertainty, but he gains a lot more in return.

This is the third book I've read by Neil Gaiman (all on audio), and I really appreciate his writing. He has a wonderful way with humor, a grand sense of adventure and whimsy, and he finds the uncanny and fantastical in the everyday and ordinary. Honestly, that's why I love fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.

Although parts of this story were dark in subject matter and could have been too gruesome, the writing keeps the subject from being over the top in these areas. Subtlety in storytelling gives this reader enough to know just how bad the bad guys are, and without the scenes being too off-putting. And there is always hope that good will win out. I need that in a book.

Of course, living in the sewer and the underground aren't the most clean ways to go about one's business, but there was also an undeniable appeal to these worlds. I'm not saying you will see me taking off on a sewer adventure (not going to happen), but at least I can read about it, and think that it didn't sound quite as bad as I thought it would (for the most part).

I liked the diversity of this world. People of different colors, shapes, sizes and origins. That's how a big city like London truly is, not the monochromatic make-believe of some of the shows on TV (which I won't name) where you wonder how the characters can go seven seasons without ever encountering a person of color. And the diversity isn't just background filler. Diverse people have strong roles in this story. With this added appeal, it made the novel even more enjoyable.

Neverwhere was a fun, interesting novel, with some mystical, otherworldly elements right smack dab in the middle of the everyday. I loved that about this book. I am so glad I started reading Neil Gaiman. I recommend you give this book a try if you haven't read him yet.

Overall rating: 4.25/5.0 stars.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron (Incarceron, #1)Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: It was hard to convey my overall views on this book. I feel like this review is very much a 'I can't put my fingers on what was wrong' type of review, so I apologize if it seems rather chaotic.

Incarceron is a book with some interesting ideas, and some intensely visual imagery. Catherine Fisher put some imagination into crafting this story, and I tip my hat to the author for that. However, my overall feeling after finishing it is disappointment. Unfortunately, there were aspects that worked for me, but as a whole creation, I wasn't impressed.

One could argue that the disconnect might be due to having listened to this on audio, but I don't think that is the cause. I liked the narrator, and this would have been a more pleasant listening experience if everything had made more sense and tied together more fluidly.

My biggest issue: I felt that the ideas didn't come together coherently. I continued to listen, hoping that I would gain that clarity I was seeking. Sadly, further listening didn't correct this deficit, and I gained little to no further evolution in my understanding. Unfortunately, my interest level suffered as a result.

I never realized the author's end-goal here. I realize this is a series, but I am a big believer that books in a series should end in such a way that they are self-contained, even if one doesn't continue the series. I hate that emotional blackmail of a cliffhanger ending or feeling I need to 'read more' to get that total picture. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I think Fisher is a good writer when it comes to imagery and ideas. But the overall plotting and story-structure of this novel was weak, in my opinion. Perhaps I am being too harsh, but this is my overall perception. Expectations are a powerful thing. For me, at least, they can make or break a book. I found myself wanting more than I was getting from this story because of the interesting ideas stimulating my imagination to believe in its potential. That was an emotional failing for this book. On an analytical level, I felt as though my thought processes were pulled in too many directions, like a flow chart that goes all wonky and it never gets to the final destination. Instead, I was on a wild goose chase to find out the overall point of the story.

Other Things I Want to Touch On:

1)I really liked the concept of the self-aware prison that had developed its own ecosystem and many generations of inhabitants. The idea of the prison recycling its inhabitants and using inorganic components when necessary was rather twisted, but it makes sense. The prison(as a 'great experiment') microcosm does shine light on the inherent flaws of any so-called utopian ideal, which I believe is doomed to fail, due to the flawed aspects of human nature.

2)I liked the idea of the lost prince who finds himself living as a pauper, with a secret destiny that calls him to something bigger.

3)There are mystical aspects with the legendary Sapphique, who is the only person who has successfully escaped the prison. But I was left with a big question mark that felt like a set-up for the next book. As I said, that is a Major pet peeve of mine.

4)The concept that a futuristic group of peoples might reject the ideals of scientific progress and retreat to the classic/archaic modes of living--that gave me something to think about, and I felt it was pretty clever.

5)I loved Claudia's relationship with her teacher, Jared. Jared is probably one of my favorite characters, in fact. Their relationship was a substitute father/daughter bond teamed with a level of deep friendship and mutual respect. This was one of the most well-developed relationships in the book, and part of why I would give this book three stars rather than 2.75 stars, which I was leaning toward doing. On the downside, I wanted to know what his chronic illness was. That lack of explanation really nagged at me as I read about his symptoms/suffering.

6)I liked Attia a lot. She was feisty, resourceful, and loyal. She turned out to be a lot more complex character than I expected. I would have liked her as a romantic interest for someone, be it Finn, Keiro, or even Jared (since I get the feeling he's not that much older than Claudia. Maybe ten years or so).

5)Finn and Claudia were okay. I agree with my GRs friend Zeek in that they never really touched me. Claudia fell flat as a character, and Finn needed more fleshing out. I was okay with the romantic possibilities between them, but I probably needed more romantic tension if that was the author's goal to develop their relationship in this direction.

6)Keiro was annoying and unlikable for most of this book. The reveal about his anxieties and self-doubt didn't endear him to me, because it was came too late and too abruptly. His motivations didn't speak to me at all. He seemed like a shallow, self-serving bully who only cared about two things: 1) Himself and 2) Finn. I do think he cared about Finn, and that was his saving grace in my mind.

Overall, I can't really cheer for this book. It left me feeling rather flat and ambivalent, with an "If Only" feeling. Sometimes you want more than a book can deliver. Such was the case here.

Will I read the next book? I'm not in a hurry to do so. If it shows up at my library on audio, perhaps.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Tme Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Definitely get out the Kleenex when you read this book, because it will make you cry. If you don't, then I think you're a more stoic person that I am!

I loved this story. It was a great pleasure to listen to it on audio, narrated by the author himself. He seems like a very interesting person to know and to talk with. All the heart of him, his soul, pain, laughter, confusion, and fire that he had in him when he wrote this story emanates from him as he narrates this novel, and I was along for the ride. I actually didn't want to get out of my car when I got home this afternoon, because I wanted to finish this novel. Fortunately, it was near the end when I got home. Even though I was happy to finish it, I wanted it to go on forever. I could easily listen to further adventures of Arnold Spirit.

On an intellectual level, I was aware of the disheartening conditions that Native Americans (or Indians as Arnold calls his people) face on many reservations in the United States, but hearing it first-hand, it struck home to me how hard that life is. It was hurtful to see that Arnold was raised not to reach for any goals, to believe that as an Indian, his future was a big, black void. That he was less than anything. I screamed, "No. No. No!" But I could understand why Arnold had to change his whole mindset and learn to hope and to believe. I think it brings home how blessed many of us Americans are. Sadly, we forget that not all Americans have even the simplest of things we take for granted, such as food to eat every day, more than one pair of clothes, a decent education (Arnold's Geometry textbook at the reservation school is thirty years old) and the ability to get to school without having to walk twenty miles. Not to mention the very short average life-span of a Spokane Indian due to the ravages of alcohol. I know what it's like to be a 'minority' in this country, and everything that comes with it, but I didn't know what it was like to be an Indian, and that was an excellent learning opportunity for me.

This book is very angsty, and it's also very funny. I felt like I was there with Arnold when he goes through his milestones and horrible tragedies. I cheered him on at his successes, and cried with him when he cried. I loved him. I still do. Arnold's a part of me now. He'll stay in my mind forever, even though I will move onto reading other books, and I'm glad for that.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hatchet by Gary Paulson

HatchetHatchet by Gary Paulsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to be honest. At first I was having a serious 'really?' moment as I started listing. The 'really?' was because this is a three-time Newberry Award winner, and I thought the prose was way too repetitive. The same word would be repeated three times. The same sentences twice. I was steeling myself to keep listening and hope it got better. It did. By the end of this novel, I totally realized why it is a Newberry Award winner.

Hatchet is a story of survival. The protagonist is a thirteen-year-old city boy who ends up stranded in the Canadian wilderness when the pilot of the small plane he's flying in has a heart attack and dies. I have to tell you, I am very impressed with this kid. I think I would have freaked like nobody's business. He does freak out at first (and I don't blame him), but ultimately shows a fortitude that inspires awe in this reader. He goes from a scared, helpless boy to a survivor. The Brian that was has to be broken down and reassembled into a Brian that can survive his new reality. He learns how to meet his needs in the harsh wilderness, and he comes out of it forever changed.

I love reading books/watching tv shows and movies about surviving. I don't know why, really. I don't even go camping or hiking, although I love the outdoors. I think it's because I love the idea of a person being resourceful and pitting their skills and mentality against the unprejudiced, often unsympathetic wild. Not conquering it, but learning to live in harmony, becoming a part of a vast ecosystem in a way that we can't do stuck in our comfortable city and surburban environs, another entity in the web of life. I would definitely recommend this book if you are of a similar mind.

I liked that Brian doesn't get it too easy. Not at all. He has to learn from his mistakes, and take the advantages that providence sends his way. He learns to keep food in his belly, to make a secure shelter, and to appreciate and anticipate the dangers of his environment. And in the process, he finds peace. He looks inside and finds his true self. That's what solitude and a oneness with nature will bring. I have always felt my most at peace in two places: in a spirit-filled church or by myself and with my heart open in prayer; and outside, surrounded by nature. So I really appreciated this aspect of the book. Brian starts out a boy who is emotionally lost at sea when his father and mother divorce, weighted down with the knowledge of his mother's infidelity; and finds that what seemed like tragedy and the end of his world will not conquer him. If he can survive the harsh elements of nature, all by himself, he can live with his family's fragmentation, and live to see the next day and the days after that.

I think this book is a metaphor for life. Life is harsh and we have to grow and change to survive it. We can't give up, descend into pity, and expect to be saved. We have to be strong and fight to save ourselves, whether it's physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Although this book had a very shaky start, I do have to agree that this is a winner. And I tell you what, this young man had a lot of lessons to teach me, lessons he learns the hard way. That's the power of a good fiction novel for me.

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Monday, November 07, 2011

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is hard to write. Not because I can't think of enough wonderful things to say about this book, but because there are so many things I loved about it. I am very glad that I had the experience of listening to this book on audio. Hearing Mr. Gaiman read it is icing on the scrumptious cake. He has a beautifully expressive, soothing, and emotive voice. He wrote it, so he has the advantage of knowing exactly what emphasis to put on the different lines and passages, and how he wants the various parts read.

I had never read Neil Gaiman before this year, and it has been my pleasure to discover him. He is a wonderful fantasist, blessed with the understanding of the joy and the awe that fantasy inspires in a reader. In this case, he manages to take a very dark subject, death, and give it a sense of whimsy and beauty.

The idea of an orphan growing up in a graveyard seems morbid, however this book doesn't read that way at all (except perhaps the parts with the ghouls, but that was on purpose). Instead of reading about a lonely, abandoned child stuck in a place of death, I felt the warm, loving way the graveyard and its denizens adopted the orphaned toddler, raising him into a lovely young man. I felt as though I grew to know all the folks in the graveyard, as if they were members of a large, eccentric family. I loved how Mr. Gaiman would introduce a new ghost by what his/her tombstone said. It was just the right touch. This and the abundant personality of the ghosts helped me to avoid descending into sadness at the realization that these were all departed folks lingering on the mortal plane. It felt natural to me. That takes talent.

Similarly the whole idea of a murderer looking for an innocent child to finish what he'd started so many years ago could have been excessively dark. It was dark, but the darkness doesn't overwhelm this story, not knowing that the Bod is far from alone in the world. He has a strong wall of protection around him, in the forms of his ghostly family, his guardian Silas, his sometimes babysitter Ms. Lupesco, and the graveyard itself. And Bod grows into a young boy/man with quite a good head on his shoulders, a good heart, and one who is resourceful enough to deal with his very evil pursuer(s), and to learn from his missteps in the complicated world of the living.

I truly love this book. The mood, the story, the writing, and the narrator. It will definitely go on my favorites shelf. I think I shall have to get me a paper copy, because this is definitely one for a reread.

Highly recommended!

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cry of the Icemark by Stuart Hill

The Cry Of The Icemark (The Icemark Chronicles)The Cry Of The Icemark by Stuart Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cry of the Icemark was a stirring military fantasy adventure. The author really took the time to bring the cultures of this novel to life. I could see that Icemark people seemed to be modelled after the Scandinavians, while Thyrrin's mother's peoples, the Hypollitan must have been based on the Amazons. And the Polipontans seemed to be like the Roman Empire. The battle scenes were fantastic--thrilling and very well-written. I got the impression that Mr. Hill took these elements very seriously and worked hard to get this part right and make it feel realistic. And I appreciated that, and I am sure that his younger readers probably do as well. Although not excessively gory, I felt all the inherent threat and bloody nature of battle. The element of loss is very evident in this story, and I definitely could appreciate the horrible odds that Thyrrin's people faced with an enormous invading force pitted against their smaller country. However, the Icemark people quickly proved that they wouldn't easily be conquered. Along with their fierce nature, there were elements of their rich sense of family and tradition, many aspects that would have been destroyed or wiped away by the Polipontans, who cared nothing for other cultures, only the assimilation of their lands and raw resources.

Thyrrin is a young heroine that I just loved. She was born to be a queen, and she showed a multi-facetedness to her character that brought her to vivid life. She's very strong and the kind of leader you want to have when you are facing a mammoth invading force who wants to wipe your people off the face of the earth. On the other hand, it's clear that she is very young and still learning a lot about leadership, courage, and humanity. I really wanted to give her a hug for all that she dealt with in this novel. I loved her friend, Oskan, Witch's Son too. He had a mystique, and a wisdom that was much greater than his young years. I also loved his wry sense of humor and the fact that he never took himself too importantly, despite his incredible latent power. He was a good companion to Thyrrin, able to deal with her sometimes hot-headed arrogance, and to soothe her very recognizable fears with the voice of reason and comfort when she seemed like she couldn't handle one more burden. In fact, most of the characters were well-drawn and excellently narrated by Heather O'Neill. This book really got me sucked in. I found myself cheering for Thyrrin and her warriors (the Hypollitan warrior woman were freaking awesome), and hating General Scipio Bellaron. I loved the werewolves and the snow leopards, both groups having a ton of personality. The vampires were nicely creepy, and the wood folk (like the Green men and nature spirits of Celtic/Norse mythology) added a sense of majestic awe to this story. This book would have great as just a straight military historical fantasy, but the supernatural elements elevated to an even more interesting level.

There was so much to like about this story. It really got me revved up. I was excited to listen to it, and sad but satisfied when it ended. It was definitely a five star listen for this reader. I look forward to the reading the other books in this series. Recommended!

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Smooth-Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

Smooth Talking Stranger (Travises, #3)Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miss Kleypas, are you reading my mind? How do you get me where I live emotionally so easily? I felt as though reading this book you had delved deeply inside my psyche, laying my issues out for me to examine in the context of a character with whom I found myself identifying very deeply. You see, I too have control issues. I too am afraid to love deeply and to care, because when you do, you lose something, and you can't get it back. It seems so much easier to hide behind your fortress of heart.

Reading your book was therapy for me. Because it helped me to look at things and to realize that holding oneself in won't save you from hurt. It just makes you feel more alone and hurting than if you did open yourself to loving others.

You made me cry with Ella's feelings for Luke. I could feel from the beginning, that tender thread of love that blossomed in Ella's wary heart for that helpless bundle of humanity. Babies are the secret weapon, and I think you know that. How can you not love a baby, who looks up at you and knows only how to love and trust you? They sink beneath your skin and find your tender areas of the heart that you have no defense or protection for. And that love builds a bridge between them to you, and from there, to the rest of the world. Luke felt like the way to open Ella up so that she could love Jack. I also think that Jack fell for Ella because he saw who she truly was in the way she cared for Luke, because she forgot to keep up her armor up then. I totally, totally got that.

You also made me laugh with this story. I loved the dialogue and the conversations. They feel very genuine to me. Like people I know talk, like conversations I might have. Texas is my stomping ground, although not Houston so much. But this book felt just like the Texas I know, the folks I see and live with every day, even if I don't really know the richer echelons. But people are people, no matter what how much money they have. You captured that beautifully.

And the romance. Ma'am you have a gift for writing romance that blesses your readers. You capture that deep, irresistible powerful intensity of a love story--the steam, the emotional connection, the powerful bond between a man and a woman. This book is one of your more steamy ones, and you definitely had me fanning myself as I read.

As for Jack Travis--yeah, he's irresistible. He's a mix of charm, determination, and realness that a woman can't overlook. Ella stood no chance. I'm glad she didn't, because they were made for each other. I don't go for that slick ladies man type, but you crafted Jack with a substance that goes beyond the charm and the playboy exterior to make him a fully realized character. I liked his confidence, and I liked that he also had vulnerabilities. Even though he'd been hurt in the past, he didn't hold back from Ella. He gave of himself deeply, and that's what I love in a man. He's not just saying what you want to hear. He's there to back up his words. His actions show where his heart is. Yeah, he played around in the past. In theory, that doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. But, on a realistic level, you take the good and the bad, the experiences that make a person who they are, and you love them for the unique creation that they have been made into by the experiences that have shaped them, along with their intrinsic core. That was my long, drawn-out way of saying that I loved Jack for who he was in this story, and that was a complex mix that worked very well for this story. He needed to be that man to be the right man for Ella. Yes, I can see why Jack is a favorite of many of your fans. I still love Hardy the best out of this series. I just do. Hardy....that man makes me sigh. But Jack....he ain't the slightest bit shabby!

I was surprised at the fact that I think I love Ella even more than Jack. It helps that I walked around in her skin in this book. I told you earlier that I felt a lot of identification with her, not on a superficial level. But on a deeper level, in the arena of the psyche. It was cathartic to see her work through her issues, and gave me something to think about. I loved the way she loved Luke, and I loved the way she loved Jack. I loved that she was a loyal sister and a patient daughter to a very difficult mother who needed that kind of love from her daughter. I liked that she picked herself from the ashes of a troubled childhood, and made a good life for herself, and sought mental and emotional wholeness. If she hadn't started that before she ever met Jack and Luke, then those relationships wouldn't have had the same hopeful resolution. I'm glad that's not the case.

Once again, you've given me a great read, and hours of pleasure, but also a read that engaged me fully. Thanks again, Ms. Kleypas!

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