Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Why I liked this book: One of the reasons that I loved His Majesty’s Dragon was that it felt like it captured a mood, a tone, and a character very effectively — it was a moment in time, on the page. Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte makes me wish I knew more about seventeenth century Spain, because the cultural references to that moment in time, in history, and in the world are fierce and omnipresent, and settle this book all the more firmly in its mood and tone.

Honestly, though, there are worse ways to remind myself of European history than to read a lovingly translated work of historical fiction that calls back to an earlier era — the Golden Century of Spain — while telling the story of the thoroughly disreputable but equally thoroughly honorable Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste’s squire, Inigo Balboa, recounts his master’s exploits, and regales the reader with his star-struck recollections of meeting Lope de Vega at the opening of one of his plays, listening to Francisco de Quevedo spout drunken poetry, and learning a plethora of respectable (and not-so-respectable) skills from the many unemployed soldiers frequenting the same haunts as his Captain.

His respectable but not-so-respectable Captain is at the heart of the story — a brave man, struggling to find a place in war-weary Madrid, weaving through the politics and laws and custom and tradition of his society as he goes. That weaving of the adventurer’s tale, politics through the eyes of the common man, and Spanish history and culture into one cohesive tale is what makes this book so remarkable, and so very, very readable. Inigo is a wry, adoring, and honest narrator, telling the story of a swashbuckling hero in a cape that needs mending, in a time that glows with culture, art, and weighty history, and he narrates a story well worth reading.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Is it science fiction blasphemy to say something was like Heinlein, but better?

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi.

A whole bunch of people who write better than I do say very nice things about the book on that page, and I’m not going to try to paraphrase them or outdo them. I will say that this book had me laughing, intrigued, and completely hooked by page 15 or so. John Perry’s voice is the perfect balance of age and wisdom and experience and the essential snarkiness of the skeptical, intelligent American. The slow reveal of the reality of the CDF and the politics and science of the universe kept me reading, page after page, ever-curious and enlightened by increments. The arc of the plot — one man finds his second life and learns about the CDF and humanity’s place in the universe — was perfectly balanced with the moral, ethical, and humanistic questions raised by that plot arc. What’s it mean to be human? What, if not your body or your mind, makes you human? Is it your actions? Your culture? Your heritage (there are no minorities in the CDF, after all)? Your society? Your politics? Your love for other beings? The relationships you build with others?

I loved it. I’m still thinking about the ideas it presented, about the dazzlingly plausible speculation about how humanity will interact with the universe, about the startlingly obvious portrayal of how humanity will respond to that interaction, about the scientific ideas it set forward, and about the dialogue and writing that moved all of those things forward so brilliantly.

Plus, the action was fantastic, without overwhelming the rest of the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a war. More than that, though, it’s a book about the people who fight wars, and it’s the portrayal of those people that really makes it shine.

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Y: The Last Man
Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan

Why I liked this book: Y: The Last Man, by Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan, falls neatly into my long history of loving the story that tells us what happens after the world ends. I’m a big fan of The Stand, Alas Babylon, and A Canticle for Liebowitz, also, all of which ask that same question — if we fall prey to disease by the billions, blow up the world, or, again, blow up the world, what happens next? What becomes of the survivors? Y asks those same questions, but with a different perspective. What happens when all the men die? Specifically, it looks at what happens to the government, the military, and all the industries where women are highly underrepresented, and then it asks the best question of all: Why is Yorick still alive? And what happens to the one last man mysteriously walking the earth?

Lots of stuff, is what.

This ongoing story blends the best of the serial comic with serious issues — gender issues, political issues, moral issues — to produce a gripping adventure tale, complex and endearing heroes, and thought-provoking questions and situations.

If you still think comics are just for kids, I dare you to give this one a try. (If you’re in Potsdam, Tim’s Comic and Game can hook you up, as can Amazon and other internet vendors. But support your local comic shop!)

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

Title: Five Quarters of the Orange
Author: Joanne Harris
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book:
I like books with quirky characters and twisty plots. I also like stories that explore the natural world and stories about the culinary arts. This book has it all: suspense, war, superstition, love, betrayal and a great fishing tale to boot.

The setting is a small rural town on the Loire River in France. Frambois Simon returns to her childhood home town as an old woman to open a restaurant in the old family homestead. She tells us of the events of her childhood in her eighth summer that led to a great tragedy in the village.

As a child, Frambois has difficulty with family relationships, especially with her moody mother who suffers from migraines. She has an even stranger relationship with a legendary pike (as in fish) named “Old Mother” who lives in the nearby river. Frambois is also infatuated with a young Nazi officer stationed in her village during the occupation. He is both a father figure and the target of her puppy love. Frambois and her siblings feed information about the local villagers to the Germans in exchange for trinkets and oranges.

The story revolves around Frambois’ struggle with the moral issues surrounding her relationships and her daily pursuit of the ancient pike. Suspense and mystery abound as events spin out of her control. Throw in her mother’s scrapbook/diary filled with old family recipes and cryptic clues about the town tragedy, you really have a great recipe for a great read.

Monday, October 9th, 2006

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fiction — Young Adult

Why I liked this book: Old-fashioned fairy tales about magic castles, talking fireplaces, and possibly-evil wizards should, in my estimation, always include an underlying emotional story about how to understand your own talents and find your place in the world.

Shy Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and finds herself quite inconveniently cursed to live as an old woman. She realizes she can’t go on as she is, so she marches off to find the Wizard Howl, whose moving castle is usually found skulking outside of her town of Market Chipping. Once inside the castle she finds a fire demon in the fireplace, a sweet-natured apprentice who’s in love with her sister (but which one?!), a flighty wizard who may or may not be evil, and a castle that is nothing like it appears on the outside. Once she’s come to terms with all of that, she finds herself in the middle of a quest for a missing wizard, protecting a family in modern Wales, a search for the King’s lost brother, and the fight against the witch who cursed her. And her role in all of those quests, problems, and fights is nothing at all like she would have expected… nor are her powers.

Diana Wynne Jones, with typical dazzling skill, pulls together what feels like twenty disparate storylines in one neat and tidy climax — as all fairy tales should end. This was a fun, smart, and interesting read, even if it is ‘juvenile’ fiction.

The College Libraries own a copy of this book — check Bearcat for the call number and to see if it’s on the shelf.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

Title: Farmer Boy
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Why I liked this book: Like many young American girls, I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the fictional and somewhat autobiographical stories of Laura Ingalls and her family as they traveled and built new homesteads in the woods and prairies of America. Farmer Boy is similar homesteader fare, however the central character is not Laura, but Almanzo Wilder, a nine-year old boy who prefers his farm chores to schoolhouse learning. Farmer Boy follows Almanzo as he faces the challenges of living off the land, in a world where if you want to sweep the floor, you first have to make your own broom from the straw that you planted last Spring. If you ever wanted to know how to train young oxen to the yoke, or how to grow a milk-fed pumpkin, this is the book for you. Occasionally reflecting the sexism and brutality of its time, this is a classic that can be read by anyone who has an interest in the life and culture of rural America in the late 1800’s.

The real treat is that Farmer Boy is set in northern New York, outside Malone. The sites and locations mentioned in the book are familiar, as is the extreme weather, political landscape and related events. To make your treat a double delight, I would encourage you to visit the Wilder Homestead in Malone after reading the book. The Wilder Homestead is the birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, the author’s real life husband whose reminiscences about his childhood on the farm became the basis of Farmer Boy. There you can see the original farmhouse and reconstructed barns which were rebuilt based on the archaeological findings of SUNY Potsdam faculty and students. The museum and homestead are full of antique farm tools and household artifacts from the late 19th century. Wilder Homestead tour guides demonstrate many of the artifacts and relate them to events and descriptions in the book. Hurry! The Wilder Homestead closes on Sept. 30th!

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Title: Slant
Author: Greg Bear
Genre: Fiction (scifi)

Why I liked this book: As a librarian, I’m hyperaware of our continued shift to an information society, an information economy. Speculative fiction that’s set in a future that sees the same shifts I’m aware of is very appealing to me, particularly when it was published in 1998, and seems so very aware of the world we live in now, in 2006 — that prescience is impressive. But Bear’s story is far more than an exploration of just an information society gone awry.

Bear envisions a world in which humanity is almost uniformly ‘therapied’, using nanotechnology and psychological counseling to cure imbalances in brain chemistry, producing a society of happier, healthier, more productive citizens. Those citizens are bombarded with information, from their evolved equivalent of the internet and cable broadcasting — an omnipresent information stream, with billboards customized to each individual’s ‘profile’, ubiquitous handheld communication, computing and media devices, virtual reality entertainment, and endless options for engaging with the information flow around them (if only you can pay!). But Bear’s near-future society isn’t a utopian one; some fundamentalist groups oppose the use of nanotechnology and the unlimited content of the information streams available to citizens, while others rebel against the way that everyone is brought to a forced ‘normal’ state with therapy, and prejudices run amok as people experiment with the options available to them. In essence, the human condition remains the same — discontent, dissatisfaction, and a quest for fulfillment lie underneat the surface of his shiny vision of the future.

Bear is a science fiction master (he’s won both the Nebula and Hugo awards), and has crafted a novel with so many plot threads woven intricately together that it’s very hard to get involved in the book — there’s no sense for the reader of where, exactly, this story is going to go. But when those plots all untangle into one unexpected climax, the effect is staggering. (It’s the kind of writing that prompts me, at the end, to go back and study the book from the beginning, saying to myself, “Oh, he totally set that up in chapter one!”) It’s a book of ideas, taking our present-day trends and extrapolating them forward in an unexpected but entirely convincing way.

I’m still thinking about it, two weeks later — and for me, that’s the sign of a good read!

Monday, April 17th, 2006

Title: The Inn at Lake Devine
Author: Eleanor Lipman
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: It’s a charming and uncomfortable premise; 13-year old Natalie is fascinated and infuriated by a letter her mother receives from a potential vacation hotel explaining that the best and happiest customers of the Inn at Lake Devine “are Gentiles”. Natalie begins a series of prank calls and letters as retribution against the innkeeper, and when she learns that her friend from summer camp summers at the Inn at Lake Devine, Natalie manipulates an invitation. She learns that, yes, the innkeeper is indeed an anti-Semite, but her sons and husband are not.

And life goes on, taking a tangled, unexpected path for Natalie, which seems to lead, repeatedly, back to the Inn at Lake Devine.

Really, though, the plot is secondary for me on this one. My primary affection for this book comes from the characters, the humor, and the clean, clear writing. I tend to overuse the word “evocative”, but this one was. Even though Pammy appears for a few paragraphs, at most, I knew who Natalie’s older sister was, and I understood her role in Natalie’s life. Her writing on mourning, funerals, and our reactions to death were so accurate to my own experience that I stopped to marvel at the clarity of her description. Lipman doesn’t need a lot of words to convey things like that, because she has used the right words to express her meaning.

A good read, an easy read, a funny read, and a thoughtful read. Evocative. So there.

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Title:Oryx and Crake
Author:Margaret Atwood

Why I liked this book: This futuristic (and dystopian, it almost goes without saying) novel has been quite a big success. Anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale will know that Atwood can imagine her way into interesting futures; and that the ideas underpinning these worlds are usually both disturbing and fascinating.

The tale told here straddles an apocalypse brought on by rampant population growth and technology, especially pharmacology, gone out of control. While the characters are pretty flat, the ideas being played with and the dynamics of the plot make it continuously interesting. Wouldn’t you want the BlyssPluss pill if it were available? It confers protection from sexually transmitted diseases, unlimited libido and sexual stamina, high energy levels, and prolonged youth. There are, it’s true, a few side effects.

But who will control this new world of biotechnological wonders? What would it be like to survive the destruction of our civilization? Could humans, with a few design changes, take a path that would avoid the fate of this world?

If you like speculative fiction, this one’s for you.

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book:

I have always been intrigued by the phenomena of banned books. Why do certain books end up on a banned list and not others? “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is a lighthearted tale about two city youths banished to a remote rural Chinese village to be “re-educated.” The two friends go to great lengths to acquire and read forbidden Western texts and to woo the beautiful young seamstress in a nearby village. Although political repression and the atrocities of the cultural revolution are underlying dark themes, there is also a sense of light and hope from the joy the two find in story telling and the reading of the banned books. The escapades of the two teenagers and the courting of the little seamstress are timeless, universal and frequently a bit comical.

But I wondered a bit at the list of authors that the two youths risked torture and imprisonment to read? Balzac, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Hugo, Bronte, Kipling? Books I would only likely read as required texts of a college literature class. Not erotic tales like “Lolita,” or “The Story of O” that I would expect teenaged boys to be reading on the sly. So, based on the recommendations of Sijie’s protagonist, I decided to read Balzac’s “Pere Goriot.” I soon discovered why Rodin’s portrait of Balzac is so formidable. Balzac’s tale is tragic, intricate, wordy and neither erotic nor lighthearted. So while I haven’t finished reading “Pere Goriot,” and I still struggle to see why this book is so coveted by the youth in Sijie’s work, it is an interesting read about French high-society, class struggle, consumerism, morality and familial bonds (or lack of them).

I recommend “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” not only for its portrayal of political repression and intellectual freedom, but as a good, quick read full of comedy and youthful exploits. Best of all, it is a story about how books and storytelling move us and transform our lives.

Click here for reviews of “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.”