Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Book Review)

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold  cover

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The setting of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is pure Cold War, focused mainly on the conflict between British intelligence agents and East Germany. But the book’s worldview is still relevant fifty years later. Author John le Carré portrays the spies on each side as amoral people who ignore their nations’ stated ideals in order to win the battles. The psychological toll on agents is high and the chance to “come in from the cold” (regain their humanity) is perpetually out of reach. This point of view isn’t nearly as surprising today as it was in 1963, but the novel’s depiction of it is powerful. Le Carré’s history as a member of British intelligence gives it an additional authority.

The book follows Alec Leamas, a competent British agent who nonetheless has a history of failure against the East Germans. His superiors send Leamas on one last mission that takes advantage of his reputation. Leamas, pretending to be fired and disgraced, sells his knowledge to Communist agents. This includes misinformation calculated to convince them that one of their highest officers is a traitor. The goal is to get the East Germans to eliminate their own man, since Leamas had failed to do it the traditional way. But as the plot unfolds, the danger to Leamas grows and new wrinkles about the mission are discovered. It all ties in to the idea that the “good guys” may be doing bad things out of pragmatism.

The story, especially the ending, is clever and will stick with the reader. The writing is simple and workmanlike, but that’s not a flaw in a story that’s supposed to evoke a spy’s practical mindset. There is one very frustrating aspect, though, and that’s the woman who falls in love with Leamas. It seems that she does this for no reason other than the fact that that happens in spy stories, as Leamas never does anything to earn her attention. She is supposed to be the sort of moral person who is at odds with cynical spies, so the book definitely would have been stronger if she’d been developed well enough for the reader to care about her.

Despite that, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is worth reading. It’s an interesting spy story in addition to making a statement. It’s quick, fun, and a little disturbing. I think it’s lost some of its power now that people are less idealistic about spy stories, but it still works even from that perspective.

Grade: B


Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk (Book Review)

Fortunately, the Milk cover

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

2013 is apparently Neil Gaiman’s year of short books. In addition to the children’s book Chu’s Day and adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he also published the young reader’s novel Fortunately, the Milk. It’s a light, farcical story without the depth or elaborate structure that Gaiman often puts into his books. However, like most Gaiman novels, it’s exactly the length and style that it’s supposed to be, without regard for industry expectations.

Fortunately is the story of a father who goes off to the store to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast, and takes longer than expected to return. The kids accuse him of absent-mindedly talking to neighbors for too long, but he responds with a story of the time-and-space-spanning adventure he got sucked into. Fortunately, he managed to keep the milk safe every step of the way, and even saved the day before returning home with his shopping mission accomplished.

It’s a fast-moving romp, with scenes and characters changing constantly. It’s supposed to be an improvised shaggy dog tale, and the plot structure is pretty loose. The situations are funny, though. For adults, this captures the feel of a silly parent playing around with jokes that go just above their children’s heads. For kids, these ideas are just unusual enough to capture the imagination and become inside jokes or fodder for new stories.

It’s also filled with whimsical illustrations by Skottie Young. They have the same silly, sketchy feeling that the writing does, and it’s hard for me to imagine this book without his contribution. (It seems like Gaiman must have planned this with Young in mind. But since the British edition of this has a different artist, apparently that’s not true. I’m very curious to hear how the art works in that book.) The font of the book also changes to bold, hand-drawn lettering at certain points to emphasize action. That helps tie everything together, actually. Though this is nothing like the classic comic book mix of text and pictures, the two combine into one reading experience.

Yes, Fortunately, the Milk is a short book. (Thanks to those illustrations taking up space, it takes maybe a half hour for an adult to read.) But it was very fun for me, and it’s easy to imagine this being thrilling for the right child. It’s not a classic book, or even Gaiman’s best of the year, but it’s one I can recommend strongly.

Grade: B+


Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Book Review)

Poison Study cover

Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

What would you do if you were forced to become a king’s food taster, and also given a poison that would kill you if you ever tried to run away from that dangerous job? Would you rebel, quietly work on staying alive, or just give in and become completely loyal to your captors? Yelena, the hero of Poison Study, goes through all those stages. Admittedly, this captivity doesn’t sound as bad as her alternative, since she was a condemned prisoner before that. Still, her behavior would seem like Stockholm Syndrome if author Maria V. Snyder didn’t stack the deck in her favor from the beginning: Yelena has a front-row seat to most royal events, protection from the second-in-command, and a personal history with the people who turn out to threaten the crown. Also, there’s a love interest to keep her loyal. Though this is a fantasy book, there’s a strong dose of the romance genre in it.

In general, your opinion about the book will depend on how much you mind the deck-stacking. Snyder definitely sets up the world and the situations so that Yelena always has a way through. A lot of that makes little sense – Why is Yelena granted so much freedom, as well as so much personal help from the head of security and intelligence, when that man other times makes it clear that he doesn’t trust a condemned murderer like her one bit? Yelena is skilled – she’s no passive heroine-in-distress – but these skills usually feel like arbitrary decisions made by the author to get her through the story. Everything about the rules, traditions, and situations that occur has been set up to get her from Point A to Point B.

On the other hand, Poison Study is light and often fun. Even if most of the characters and plot events are foreshadowed, it’s still interesting to see the details unfold. And the setting is clever. Ixia is ruled by an iron-fisted dictator whose harsh laws make no exceptions for people’s motives or life situations. However, it replaced a corrupt kingdom which rewarded only power and bribery. The book doesn’t shy away from the evils of the current system, but makes a good argument that the citizens are better off than they had been before.

Though there is magic (arbitrary rules have been set up to ensure Yelena’s victory, remember?), most of the book feels grounded in reality. A romance fan could enjoy this easily, although it’s still definitely more of a fantasy novel. The romance never derails the plot, even though it is fairly obvious all along. I did mind the abusive undertones to it – The man is controlling and violent, but that’s ok because Yelena understands him. These are just undertones, at least, making it better than a lot of successful romances, and I was glad to see Yelena stand up for herself most of the time.

I can’t recommend Poison Study, but didn’t dislike it either. It’s clever sometimes, predictable others, with two-dimensional characters in an interesting situation. Yelena succeeds at times just because she’s the main character, but other times because she’s a strong, confident woman. It’s blandly enjoyable and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, but it frequently skirts that line.

Grade: C+


Young Wizards Books 6 and 7

It’s been a couple years since I last looked at Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series.  These were my favorite books as a kid, but my reaction as an adult is more mixed. I love that its magic feels more like science or computer programming than hand-waving, but this rational system is overshadowed by a kiddy-New- Age theology in which gods micromanage our lives and a loving universe wants Life to win out. Overall I enjoyed the books, though they don’t feel quite as polished as the biggest YA books being written today.

I only had the first three books when I was young, but I tried volumes six and seven a few months ago. Here are my reviews.

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China Miéville – Railsea (Book Review)

Railsea cover

China Miéville – Railsea

Though I am a huge fan of China Miéville, I put off reading Railsea for a full year. It’s his second young adult book, and his first, Un Lun Dun, had been his only bad novel to date. That book introduced a world filled with arbitrary, pun-filled wonders that didn’t even begin to form a cohesive whole, and felt like Miéville was just not understanding or respecting his audience.

I needn’t have worried. Railsea takes an entirely different approach to adapting Miéville’s writing for young adults. Now, I’m not sure how many children are going to want to read through the novel, as it’s filled with big words and complex concepts. If you’re already familiar with him, though, it works, and he feels free to invent his most wild and exciting world in years. It’s difficult to describe the setting of Railsea without making it feel ridiculous. Suffice to say, it involves a desolate world filled with railroad track that trains traverse like ships on the ocean, and the ground below them swarms with burrowing beasts that make it as dangerous to go overboard as it would while sailing. Many trains hunt giant moles, and the captains are generally motivated by Moby Dick-like nemeses. And that’s just the basic setting, without the truly fantastical details. But Miéville, being Miéville, makes it work.

Normally, Miéville’s name on a novel also means that it will be violent, cynical, and likely have an unsatisfying ending. I’ve said before that his gift is for world-building, but his heart lies in world-destroying. This was his main concession for the YA audience. It’s still a bit bleaker than many young books would be – expect some murderous, corrupt government agents, for example – but throughout nearly the whole book, the feeling pervades that this is a “safe” story, which will follow the expected patterns and provide most characters with the ending they deserve. And this does require some people to act in selfless ways that seem to be against their normal personality, as well as some plot-hammering to reintroduce people who are spread about the world. If my familiarity with Miéville made the convoluted (but fun) prose easier to accept, it also made the gentle plot feel jarring. After wishing that he would stick to more standard endings from time to time, I learned that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

Sure, there are other aspects that fit the young adult audience. The basic sketch of the story is definitely designed that way: A young orphan learns about himself, and picks up a clever animal sidekick, while on a quest that introduces him to other children who are more capable than adults. But it is usually hard to pick out the standard YA threads from all the Miévillian flights of imagination. Overall, even though I don’t know how right this is for most young readers, and I found the plot less satisfying than normal, the prose and setting will be a treat for any fan of his. I’m hoping for more pure worldbuilding fantasies like this.

Grade: B


Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles (Book Review)

The Age of Miracles cover

Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a first-person account of an apocalypse. When the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down for unknown reasons, both society and the environment fall apart. The narrator, Julia, is a middle-school girl whose coming of age is intertwined with changes for all humanity.

Don’t think too much about the science behind this. If such a thing were to happen, I believe the changes in temperature and atmosphere would actually be a lot more extreme than the book shows, and anything that relied on satellite communication would probably break right away. But that’s not supposed to be the focus of the book, anyway. Walker is more interested in her characters and they ways they’re affected.

The problem is that the characters aren’t good enough to carry the book, either. The cast was very well-planned, with motivations that feel realistic and play off each other in interesting ways. But the novel rarely gives the characters much more warmth than that initial outline must have had. Interactions are shallow and uninteresting, and Julia’s narration gives no emotion to most important events. Julia is a poor choice for narrator. She’s a passive observer who doesn’t even take action the rare times that something truly matters to her. Sometimes narrators like this work because it makes them a good stand-in for the reader, but if so they need to have something interesting to say. Even her “growth” in the later part of the book has more to do with how other people decide to treat her than with anything she does.

This aspect does slowly improve as the book goes on, though. Several people have subplots, a few of which are interesting. Near the end, some emotional events happen that Julia finally feels strongly about, and they work. Walker can write powerful prose when she focuses on simple human tragedies like a loved one dying.

On a broader scale than the main characters, this book’s portrayal of humanity also seems weak. From the moment scientists announce that the Earth’s rotation has changed, a country full of people who didn’t believe in global warming is suddenly paying rapt attention and panicking. People actually move out of state less than a day after the event happens. Within a couple months, there is such a wide gulf between people who stick to a 24-hour clock and people who adjust to the ever-lengthening days that ex-friends are already vandalizing houses and turning each other in to the police. Governments seem to be strangely passive as their systems collapse, and while I can believe that no one ever finds a solution to the problem, I’d expect some systemic reactions to it.

The Age of Miracles is a simple read that still took me a while to get through. It’s not a bad book, really, but it is a bland one. For all its attempts to humanize a fictional apocalypse, its main strength is satisfying an abstract curiosity about what will happen next. There’s a decently-structured plot, just little reason to care.

Grade: C


Drew Magary – The Postmortal

The Postmortal cover

Drew Magary – The Postmortal

What would happen if we discovered an inexpensive way to stop people from aging? According to Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, everyone would quickly take “The Cure” and begin to wear away at our environment and social fabric. It’s a plausible answer, but a pretty shallow one that assumes a quick read of modern American culture is all we need to predict the next century. In fact, “shallow” describes the book pretty well.

It starts off pretty strongly, with an interesting hook that fits the book’s breezy, blog-post style. (That voice is a little weird if you worry about how convenient it is that the author’s explanations and details are perfectly aimed at a reader of the book, rather than a contemporary of his. But it’s easy enough to ignore.) And when the story suddenly jumps forward ten years to a world still celebrating The Cure, it stays believable. Magary’s depiction of our modern world may be a bit facile, but it feels real and manages to spark anger, curiosity, and sympathy at the right times.

Then it jumps forward again, twenty years this time. And the narrator acts completely the same, despite the major lifestyle changes he allegedly underwent during that time. The world is devolving into chaos, but his day-to-day interactions with the supporting cast feel the same as they did pre-Cure. The occasional interruptions to deal with disasters don’t feel like they belong in the same world he’s describing the rest of the time. And really, the entire plot just flows along as if that twenty-year break had actually been a week. The story gets put on hold whenever it jumps through time (it happens again), and plot threads that should be long-forgotten keep coming up as if the world revolves around just him.

It’s sad to see a light, enjoyable book go so far off the rails. By the end, the protagonist is making sudden, hard to justify decisions about crazy plot twists that stem from events that had been unresolved for decades. The rest of the world seems just as eager to bring things to a climax, and events that were obviously foreshadowed but never made believable begin to happen at a fast pace. What was supposed to be a thought experiment about human nature closes on a big mess of coincidences, rushed plot, and side characters who don’t have agency except to support or foil the narrator.

The Postmortal could have been good. The strong part, which seems more or less grounded in reality and gives us supporting characters to care about, takes up almost the first half of the book. But it lacks the vision to keep extrapolating, as well as the ability to keep the plot developing fairly. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but maybe the most disappointing part is the missed potential.

Grade: C