Friday, September 9, 2011

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

by Thom Dunn

The first thing I heard about The Night Circus was that it was "going to be the next Twilight." Naturally, this made me a bit skeptical, but when I heard the first chapter of the audiobook (narrated by Jim Dale!) at a lovely circus launch party in Concord, Massachusetts (where some of the book is set), I decided to get over my prejudices towards sparkly vampires and give The Night Circus a fair shot.

And you know what? It was good.

It wasn't great by any means, but I certainly enjoyed it. From the first chapter (both reading and hearing), I found myself swept up in the magnificent imagery of the story, and its sprawling, magical nature. First-time author Erin Morgenstern fills her story with charming characters, tortured and macabre and beautiful, and does a very good job of creating the world of this supernatural traveling circus at the turn of the 20th century.

Except when she doesn't.

Morgenstern's descriptions of the magical goings-on in each circus tents is mesmerizing — I can already hear the fans crying out about how the upcoming film doesn't do justice to the Ice Room, or the Wishing Tree, or the White Bonfire, as they appeared in the readers' heads — but she seems to focus so heavily on these descriptions that she neglects to fill in the details of the story. The book jacket describes it as a duel to the death between two apprentice magicians (the magic kind; not the hats-in-rabbits kind) who ultimately fall in love. That's there, I guess, but at no point in the book is there ever any sense of stakes, or drama. Sure, you get told that there's this mysterious "competition," and that there are "rules" and "players" that must remain secret until they are revealed. But other than that, it's just fanciful descriptions of magical midnight dinner parties (which, for the record, I quite enjoyed). The sense of mystery and intrigue that surrounds the story makes you want to keep reading, and the pretty imagery satisfies you for a while, but unfortunately, that's not enough to live on.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Story: 5.8
Somewhere in here, there is a beautiful, timeless story of two unwitting pawns bound by their lineage into an ancient struggle between good and evil, who try to overcome these forces in the name of love. Unfortunately, by the time that Morgenstern really gets into this Romeo & Juliet story, it's already too late. There seems to be some great history and story between Prospero The Enchanter, and the elusive Man In The Grey Suit — but it never really goes anywhere, and we never get much explanation for, well, anything. (It is, however, quite enjoyable to read about Poppet & Widget, the twins born in the circus on opening night, and their friendship with lonely farmboy Bailey. Maybe that should have been the A-Plot)

Style: 7.8
The style here is what saves The Night Circus. Chapters hardly ran more than five pages, and successive chapters focused on different characters, often in a nonlinear fashion. By jumping between time and character, Morgenstern is able to set up a captivating puzzle that, while simple enough to follow, still makes you want to read more. With such short chapters, I found myself constantly thinking, "Well, just one chapter more," hoping that I would soon return to one of the more exciting scenes or storylines. I also found it interesting that, barring a few one-page interludes rendered in the 2nd Person, most of the scenes were written in 3rd person present, which helped add to the mysteriously nonlinear suspense. And of course, as I've mentioned several times, Morgenstern creates some wonderful imagery in the story. It's not quite poetry, but it is certainly vivid and rich.

General: 6.3
The Night Circus was certainly an enjoyable read, and I don't doubt that it will be successful as a franchise. And for a first time author — who, if I'm not mistaken, has never had so much as an article or a short story published — it's admirable work. Still, for all its wonderful moments, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing.

Overall: 6.63

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Truth About Diamonds (Nicole Richie)

by Thom Dunn

Upon discovering that Nicole Richie (of "Nicole Richie" fame) was a New York Times Bestselling Author, I challenged myself to conquer the novel that brought her such a distinction, and to do so as objectively as possible, without simply writing it off as "Haha. Nicole Richie wrote a novel. Haha."

The Truth About Diamonds is the fictional story of Nicole Richie Chloe Parker, the adopted daughter of a famous musician, and her struggles with addiction and fame as part of the Hollywood A-List. The story is narrated by Chloe's good friend, Future Fictional Nicole Richie, and brings readers behind the scenes of Nicole's Chloe's reality television series The Simple Life with Paris & Nicole Magdalena Girls, and her rocky relationship with best friend and co-star Paris Hilton Simone.

Basically, The Truth About Diamonds is #1stWorldProblems in novel form. Nicole Chloe and her friends lead difficult lives as the children of wealthy and successful celebrities. They are forced to go shopping, eat expensive salads at lunch, go to fancy clubs, and get paid ridiculous sums of money to act as walking product placement for top designer brands. Sure, Chloe is forced to deal with her drug addiction and rehab, some annoying paparazzi, and the seedy machinations of reality TV producers, but these problems are only briefly touched upon, and even more quickly resolved.

Oh! Did I forget to mention that there's a totally sweet collection of glossy photos of Nicole Richie looking drugged up and sad inserted into the middle of the book? No? Whatever.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that next time I decide to take on such a challenge: please, for the love of God, talk me out to it.

The Truth About Diamonds, by Nicole Richie

Story: 3.3
You know how there's that whole school of writers like Bret Easton Ellis who like to expose the corrupt and twisted amorality of the American Upper Class in their work? This book's is kind of like that. Except no one's really that corrupted or twisted or amoral (or that complex or interesting). You catch a few glimmers of these treats in the books "antagonists" — mostly PR spinsters and paparazzi, but even then, they're not that bad. Every time an event seems poised to send our main character plummeting to rock bottom, leaving the empathetic reader to pine, "Oh no! How will she ever make it out of this one?", the problem is neatly resolved within 4 pages. Oh no! Nicole Chloe fell off the wagon and went back on drugs? Nicole Chloe made a fool of herself on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards? It's cool, she's an obscenely wealthy pseudo-celebrity, so obviously nothing that bad can happen to her, 'cause, I mean, duh.

Seriously, there's even a passage that details some of the possible side effects of withdrawal from Xanax (this during Chloe's 6-page stint in rehab) that ultimately finishes with: "Fortunately, Chloe's Xanax addiction was not as severe as they come, so she never came close to ending it all." So much for drama and extreme human emotion. Oh well.

Style: 4
I give this book a 4 on style simply because a stylistic choice was actually made in writing it. It follows the same kind of narrative style as The Great Gatsby, where the First Person Narrator (in this case, Nicole Richie herself) relays the story of our protagonist (Pre-Rehab Nicole Richie Chloe) while playing only a minor part in the story herself. Plus, the novel contains incredible wordplay like, "But in the boardroom, everything sounds boring." Get it? 'Cause "board" and "bor" are — ya know what, forget it. At least she tried.

General: 3.8
I mean, it's not a bad book I guess. It's just not particularly good, and I don't see a point to its existence other than paying for a new purse for Ms Richie. It wasn't necessarily a painful reading experience. Although in a way, I wish it had been — at least that way it would have been more dynamic. You can tell that Richie (assuming it was actually written by her, and not a ghostwriter) has personal stakes in the topic of drug addiction, because those moments in the book tend to have the presence and depth. But overall, there's no lesson, or message, or brilliant illumination of the human psyche, or really even a story, or any of those things that fiction is supposed do.

Overall: 3.7

Friday, July 8, 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu)

by Thom Dunn
I've been looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it prior to its release last year. I was already familiar with Yu's short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and I enjoyed his dry humor, his simplistic approach to complicated scientific situations, and his complicated scientific approach to simple situations. Unfortunately, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe proved to be quite the popular book, and I had difficulty getting my hands on a copy until recently. I rarely approach a modern novel with a full year's worth of hype behind it, so I was increasingly worried about how disappointed I might feel after finally reading it.

Lucky for me, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe quite lived up to all of my expectations.

The premise of the book is absolutely delectable: Charles Yu (the character, not the author) is a time machine mechanic with a Masters degree in Applied Science Fiction. He spends most of his life in his time machine along with his non-existent dog, Ed, who was retroactively removed from continuity but, like all good dogs, still provides his master with unconditional love despite this paradox of causality. He will readily tell the long, possibly detailed story of not meeting The Woman I (he) Never Married. And so on. Charles Yu embarks on a quest to reconnect with his father, during which he accidentally shoots his own Future Self, who gives him a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is (or, more accurately, will be) written by Charles Yu (the character — wait, no, the author — oh, whatever).

That should pretty much tell me exactly what to expect from this book — ridiculous, self-referential, incredibly clever nerd humor disguised as ridiculously convoluted techno-babble. Charles Yu uses time travel as a means of exploring language, grammar, and the construction of our own memories. Don't be scared off by all the talk of Closed Timelike Curves and wormholes — even when he rambles on about technical terms you don't understand, he does so in an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek manner:

The base model TM-31 time machine runs on state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology: a six-cylinder grammar drive built on a quad-core physics engine, which features an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation within a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe.

Or, as Mom used to say: it's a box. You get into it. You push some buttons.

In many ways, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe can be seen as a successor to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Both tell psuedo-autobiographical stories (at least, stories initially inspired by personal histories) through the veil of time travel and other silly tropes of science fiction (fully acknowledging their own absurdities). This gives the author a chance to look at his own (fictionalized) life from the perspective of an outsider. Some of my absolute favorite parts of the story are when Charles Yu uses complex quantum physics (including some made-up psuedo-physical story terms) to discuss his relationship with his father, and the emotions that surround that relationship, as they offer a unique but undeniably sympathetic angle on the situation, something you don't often find when using technical science to explain how you're feeling.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Story: 8.0
While the basic story doesn't stray so far from the established tropes of time travel science fiction (paradoxes, timeloops of cause-and-effect, etc.), Charles Yu still manages to create a unique and distinctive fictional world, one that is fully conscious of its own fictional nature but never loses its heart. The characters and situations are as absurd as they are endearing, and almost make you wish that you could live in a science fictional universe with them. But it's the meticulous plotting of such a(n intentionally) convoluted mess that is particularly impressive; Yu manages to spin his readers into a cloud of wacky metaphysical concepts and weird science, but never gets lost himself.

Style: 9.6
Cosines, physics equations, and chronodiegetical substrates have never been so hilarious or easy to understand. Charles Yu writes with an incredibly unique voice, exploring otherwise bizarre and emotionless situations with the raw heart and wonder of a child. The humor is subtle and dry and wildly clever, but the reading feels quick and easy.

General: 9.4
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one of the most touching and entertaining books I've read in a long time. If you like humor, read it; if you like stories about father-son relationships, read it; if you like science, read it; if you like science fiction, read it; if you like memoirs, read it. It even manages to use all of those incredibly-clever-but-not-really-anymore-because-duh tropes of metafiction (like writing the story you're reading while you are reading the story that's being written) and makes them feel fresh and enjoyable, and actually have a greater resonance in the story as a whole. While some people might be put off by its seemingly esoteric (or just plain weird) nature, give this book a chance; I don't think you'll regret it.

Overall: 9.00

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Year We Left Home (Jean Thompson)

by Melanie Yarbrough

I've been frequenting the library like old times lately, and I picked up Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home. She's written familiar books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl. It was on display on the New Books table and because of it's interesting cover (so sue me!), I picked it up. Don't you love the lack of consequences when you impulse grab things at the library? Me too.

Thompson's novel is structured by year and character. Throughout the novel, we travel to different parts of the country, getting good clues as to the political and economic climate of the country as well as the family that the novel chronicles. Thompson is strongest when she's in the characters' minds. Each section is written in third person limited, and the outcome is beautiful. Set in a rural farmtown in Iowa, the story starts out in 1973, mostly between Ryan and his cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Their exchange in Ryan's truck, smoking weed, takes place as much in what Ryan doesn't say as in what the two do say to one another. This introduction to both characters sets up an understanding of the family they come from that is essential to the novel.

My favorite part about the novel's structure was the way it dipped in and out of each character's life, showed us glimpses that we return to later in the book, decades later. The first half of the novel's sections end cliffhanger style. There's a build-up of suspense that creates a sort of sigh of relief sensation when you realize you've reached the half of the book that ties up those loose endings. But there is nothing particularly neat about Thompson's ties. There are lives forever changed by tragedy that we get to see once the initial support of the community dies down and the family is left to fend for itself. We are not present for every character's trajectory of growth, and so it seems that it's the circumstances rather than the journey that Thompson wanted us to focus on. Once history begins, there is no changing it until you are on the other side of it, still alive.

The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson

Story - 6.8
The story is basically centered around family. I enjoyed the way it stretched out, took on the shape of a tree, spreading in all different directions and winding back into itself. There are so many stories in this novel, but Thompson brings each of them back together nicely into one big story about one big family.

Style - 7.2
I'm a big fan of novels in stories, probably because I write stories and feel as though that style is my only chance to actually write a novel. I digress. Thompson doesn't focus on one character too much, and the third person limited of each section lends the perfect amount of distance and insight. I enjoyed seeing the family from all angles.

General - 7.5
I read this book fairly quickly, and that's usually how I judge if I'm really enjoying a book or not. I was eager to return to it, to sneak moments with it, to finish it. Each character is set up, tested in some way, and Thompson returns to each of them after they've moved past these times of trial. Whether they've changed for the better or worse after them, they are still together, still alive.

Overall - 7.2

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

by Emily Steers

If you’re a female between the ages of 13 and 45 and your love of fantasy and science fiction wasn’t completely stomped to pieces by the Twilight franchise, you’ve probably already devoured The Hunger Games and have a likeness of the protagonist on your computer desktop. If you aren’t in that demographic and value strong characters, vivid alternative realities, and unapologetic underdog stories, the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy offers an arresting summer read.


The Hunger Games begins with the first person, present-tense narrative of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old woman living in the 12th district of the post-apocalyptic country of Panem. She’s a bit bitter, pig-headed, and armed to the teeth, though the latter is accomplished on the sly, because The Capital likes to keep the regular folk in check with the threats of violence and a perpetual state of near-starvation.

Katniss uses her analog weaponry (bows, arrows, knives, snares) to go hunting in the woods just beyond her district to feed her mother and sister. In true storybook fashion, her saintly father had taught her these skills but was killed off in a mining accident, leaving her mother comatose and unable to care for her two daughters; the entire district remains too poor and completely unable to lend a hand.

If living on the brink of starvation wasn’t a big enough F-U to the people of Panem, the Capital overlords keep an even bigger leash on the people by holding the Hunger Games, an annual event pitting one male and one female teenaged “tribute” from each of the twelve districts in a fight to the death. A televised, must-see-TV fight to the death. Harvested at random through a lottery, it’s “supposed” to be noble to participate in the Games, but obviously no one is too thrilled when the annual reading of names rolls around.

Katniss’s angelic younger sister Prim gets chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. Using the survivalist skills she’s honed over the years hunting and keeping her family alive, Katniss takes to the Hunger Games in an emotionally fraught battle for survival.


The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Suggested to me by a 30+ year-old male friend, never has the story of a teenaged girl’s struggle with high expectations, growing up, and first loves been so completely universal—and, let’s face it, badass. If there’s a struggle to get young boys and men to connect with female protagonists, I suggest The Hunger Games be required reading for middle school classes. Throw out those beat-up copies of Jacob Have I Loved and let the guys connect with a girl who can stand up for herself.

The writing is filled with technical flaws. It’s difficult to read past the present tense verbs, and character development relies pretty heavily on the narration telling you things about each character rather than having personality traits divulged through action. Essentially, everything is told rather than shown. Additionally, since the world of Panem is entirely fictional and loosely based in reality, new “outs” are created on the fly, which can be beyond frustrating for readers used to more technically flawless books.

This book is difficult to put down. Because of the life-and-death nature of the conflict, the story is cinematic and very compelling. Collins is a young-adult and children’s book writer. Adults will have no problem breezing through the novel, and the content should be considered PG-13 for the gruesome demises of major characters.

Overall: 8.49

Make sure you have a free 24 hours to read this book from cover to cover!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Haiku Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, part 2

by Brian McGackin

Harry is seriously so annoying in this book.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Chapter 20: Hagrid's Tale

What I Did On My
Summer Vacation, Hagrid
Edition: Giants

Chapter 21: The Eye of the Snake

Prof. Umbridge audits
Hagrid's class. Harry kisses
Cho and bites Ron's dad.

Chapter 22: St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

Weasleys and Harry
head to hospital, visit
snake-bitten Arthur.

Harry overhears
adult conversation: he's
possessed by Voldy!

Chapter 23: Christmas on the Closed Ward

Harry is angsty
until Ginny sets him straight.
Hermy ditches 'rents.

Back at hospital,
Harry and co meet Neville's
gran and addled mom.

Chapter 24: Occlumency

Snape and Harry start
anti-mind-reading lessons
(Dumbledore's orders).

Chapter 25: The Beetle at Bay

Death Eaters escape
from Azkaban. Harry and
Cho go on bad date.

Hermione has
Rita Skeeter write Harry's
story for Quibbler.

Chapter 26: Seen and Unforseen

Tabloid star Harry
sucks at Occlumency and
sees Voldy's bedroom.

Meanwhile, Umbridge sacks
Divination prof. Sibyl;
Dumbledore hires horse.

Chapter 27: The Centaur and the Sneak

Centaur Firenze—new
Divination professor—
says war is coming.

Cho's friend snitches so
D.A. disbands. Dumbledore
evades Fudge, arrest.

Chapter 28: Snape's Worst Memory

With Dumbledore gone,
the twins take their mayhem to
a whole new level.

Then, Harry sneaks peek
at Snape's worst memory: picked
on by Harry's dad!

Chapter 29: Career Advice

Despite Umbridge's
protests, Prof. McG vows to
help Harry find job.

Harry talks through fire.
Twins build portable swamp, fly
off into sunset.

Chapter 30: Grawp

Hagrid's bro-giant
is hidden in the forest.
Weasley is our King.

Chapter 31: O. W. L. S.

Fifth years take tests. Fang,
McG knocked out. Hagrid sacked.
Sirius tortured?

Chapter 32: Out of the Fire

Harry's annoying;
he won't listen to reason
about Sirius.

Rescue plan devised
but thwarted by Umbridge,
who Hermy then deceives.

Chapter 33: Fight and Flight

Umbridge abducted
by centaurs. Then Grawp rescues
Hermy and Harry.

Ginny, Neville, Ron,
and Luna duel Slytherins;
all mount bat-horses.

Chapter 34: The Department of Mysteries

Flight to Ministry:
Harry and friends search for Black,
find only weird rooms.

Chapter 35: Beyond the Veil

Harry finds glass orb;
Death Eaters arrive, chase kids,
try to steal the orb.

The Order joins in.
Dumbledore to the rescue!
Black killed by cousin :'(

Chapter 36: The Only One He Ever Feared

Dumbledore! Voldy!
Duel of the Century! With
help from some statues!

Defeated, Voldy
retreats. Fudge finally sees
Dumbledore was right.

Chapter 37: The Lost Prophecy

Harry learns truth 'bout
Voldy: neither can live while
the other survives.

Chapter 38: The Second War Begins

The Wizarding World
now knows Voldemort is back.
Dark times lie ahead.

Harry heads back home.
The Order inform the Dursleys
they better be nice.

I guess Hogwarts needs
a new Defense Against the
Dark Arts professor...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fun & Games (Duane Swierczynski)

by Thom Dunn

The latest novel from Marvel comics scribe and fervent crime fictioneer Duane Swiercyznski, Fun & Games is the first installment in a trilogy of novels featuring Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop (well, cop-ish) with a bloody past. This being a Duane Swiercyznski novel, the obligatory references to his hometown of Philadelphia still manage to sneak their way in, but for this story (and, presumably, the rest of the trilogy), Swierczy exiles his protagonist from this comfort zone and drops him right into the brushfires of Los Angeles.

Fun & Games serves as a kind of love-letter to LA noir and a wake to its history, embedded deeply in the Hollywood Hills. Swierczynski's excitement for the genre bleeds through his prose with a ferocious, whirlwind, almost ravenous energy that engulfs the reader with no apologies, from the epigraphs (quoted from film noir classics and more) to the biting, cynical criticisms of the film/media/LA industries.

It's kind of like Mulholland Drive, except it actually makes sense.*

You know, in a way, I kind of don't want to tell you. Because going into this book, I knew very little about it myself, and that may have made the ride even wilder. But here's at least a bit of background for you.

Charlie Hardie is a man with a past who now makes his living as...a professional house sitter. He arrives in Los Angeles to watch after the home of a successful film composer, who is off on business in Russia for a month. He is surprised to find a young, attractive movie star named Lane Madden hiding in the house, tripping on a cocktail of cocaine and heroin and hysterically ranting about some mysterious "Them" that's been trying to kill her. Charlie soon realizes that Lane Madden may not be as paranoid — or as innocent — as she appears, and finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy of Hollywood insiders who might actually control the world through their (literal) plotting.

Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski

Story: 8.6
Fun & Games is the kind of story that grabs you by the shirt in the first few pages and then throws you off a cliff. And since it's the first book in trilogy, the ending offers you a small foothold, but its only enough to brace yourself for a moment before you continue falling down the rabbit hole. Swierczynski is an intricate master plotter, and the story is full of moments that shock you and then make you smack yourself in the head and go "Duh! Of course that was going to happen!" Everything has a payoff, almost as if Swierczynski wrote and solved a mathematical proof for an unashamedly juiced-up pastiche of pulp/noir stories.

Style: 7.8
While omniscient 3rd person narrators have never turned me off from a story, I have to admit that I've never been particularly fond of them (I like my narratives to have limits, or at least somewhat unreliable). However, Swierczynski employs a unique method here, which is multiple 3rd person limited narrations that hit you like a slurry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its affections for Hollywood and moviemaking, Fun & Games flows like a movie, full of fast-paced jumpcuts and surprising scene changes. Some of these changes come so rapidly after one another that it's hard to keep up (which is part of what keeps the reader on the edge the whole time), especially as it shares the same moment from multiple perspectives (and always in a carefully calculated way — Swierczynski knows how to reveal pertinent information with the strongest impact).

General: 9.4
Not only did I blow through this book in record time, but when I finally reached the end, I immediately tried to figure out when I could get my hands on a copy of the sequel, Hell & Gone. It's like a flash thunderstorm in the middle of a glorious summer day (or maybe that's just the weather outside right now -- yup, looks like). Anyone who considers him/herself to be a fan of mysteries, thrillers, noir, "the dark side of Hollywood," crime stories, or wild conspiracies would be a fool not to read this book. Swierczynski might not be breaking ground with his new Charlie Hardie series, but he's building such a labyrinthine structure of wheels within wheels that it's hard to resist. Fun & Games only shows us the tip of this conspiracy, but its undeniably intriguing, as Swierczynski offers us a well-developed and scathing commentary of what really goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood — and the world.

Overall: 8.6

Fun & Games is available June 20, 2011 from Mulholland Books.

*I actually quite enjoyed Mulholland Drive. I thought it was a very beautiful experimental/slipstream poem, on film. But let's be honest, that movie didn't make any sense.

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