Category: Recommended by Other People

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi Review

Homegoing

Homegoing

Author:  Yaa Gyasi

Published:  2016

This is a tough book to review, which makes sense because it was also a difficult book to read. The story is similar to the short story collections by Alice Munro or Sherman Alexie where the chapters are very separate stories but they all connect to a central narrative. Here the book begins at two half sisters in the same area of Africa and follows each line of the family by focusing on one family member from each generation. The two initial chapters are about a girl whose family is part of the slave trade and a girl who is sent to America as a slave. The other chapters primarily alternate between Africa and America with a little crossover towards the end.

As an idea for a novel, it is very original and certainly memorable. I have a feeling many readers will find this an easy book to walk away from at times as the chapters are so unconnected that you lose a lot of the thrill of a page-turner novel. The endings of chapters aren’t cliffhangers, and there is never total resolution at the end of a chapter. If you want a book that leaves you constantly needing to know what’s on the next page, that’s not what you’re getting here.

The structure also leads to another inevitable problem, namely that the setting and characters in each story are so different that the reader will certainly be more invested in some stories than others. For the most part the only recurring themes are the unfairness of life and the sins of the past still harming the present. This isn’t a book that uplifts the reader either, as the vast majority of the chapters reveal the sad demise of the prior protagonist. One of the most sympathetic characters in the book is a lady that burns her two young daughters to death; it’s that sort of novel.

Despite all that, this is definitely a book that will appeal to some readers. For one, it’s an excellent version of the “family saga” genre of books. Instead of following the typical three generations, it follows about 7, via two separate trees. The unique style and setting also standout in the reading landscape. Gyasi brings a unique perspective to her work and already has a strong sense of narrative, quickly making characters that feel distinct from the ones you’ve already read. I’m giving the book four stars, but it’s a book that I enjoyed as much as a three star one while reading it but will likely remember better than some 5 star books a year from now.

**Note, I read this book based on a year end best of list by Goodreads super reviewer Emily May**

4-star

“The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham Review

The Risen

The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus

Author:  David Anthony Durham

Published:  2016

This was the third book I received from the Brilliant Book of the Month Club, and it was by far the best. The Risen is a retelling of the story of Spartacus, historical fiction done in the style of Game of Thrones. I base the GOT comparisons on the rotating cast of perspective characters that Durham utilizes to tell this story. Unlike GOT however, The Risen avoids a lot of the tedium and pacing issues that have dogged George R.R. Martin’s more recent works.

One third of the way through, I was keeping a list of the characters and assigning an actor to each one just so I could keep them straight. Thankfully, between 300, Troy, Game of Thrones, and a host of other swords and sandals epics I had plenty of cool actors to populate the cast. The book is broken up into three sections, with (as best as I can tell) one chapter per each section devoted to each of the perspective characters. Unlike GOT, the characters are almost all on the side of Spartacus, with two exceptions: Nonus (a cowardly Roman who reminded me of Theon Greyjoy) and Kaleb (a slave to Spartacus’s main rival Crassus). The rest of the perspective characters include obvious choices like Spartacus and Castus, as well as more diverse individuals like Vectia (an elderly woman who serves as a guide), Sura (a priestess to Kotis) and Philon (a greek medic slave).

Whereas my initial interactions with some of the characters made them difficult to differentiate (Castus and Dolmos seemed particularly bland in the early going), Durham does a fantastic job of giving each character a distinct viewpoint, history and motivation for their actions going forward. Durham also does a great job of pacing his reveals within his chapters, generally by beginning each new chapter by jumping ahead in the action and then filling in the blanks in intervals throughout. When characters begin to betray each other, or fall during battle, the reader is often made to wait several pages to find out who is involved in the action. I’d find this to be a problem in a different book, but here the plot moves so quickly that it never felt like a trick.

I was also reminded of Brandon Sanderson while reading this book, as by the end of it I had a clear idea of the plotting that went into it by the author. Each character introduced was necessary to the plot and contributed to the narrative in an essential way. My favorite chapters ended up involving Kaleb (who served as a stand in for any of the millions of people who could have led to a different outcome for the Risen) and Dolmos (who reminded me of Ned Stark by the end of it). I’d recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction or fans of the Roman era in history.

5-star

“Doc” by Mary Doria Russell Review

Doc

Doc

Author:  Mary Doria Russell

Release Date:  2011

I’m continuing to review books given glowing recommendations by my favorite Goodreads reviewers. This installment features a recommendation by Kemper who wrote:

“The best read of the year came in the form of two books that made up one historical fiction which added a lot of humanity to legendary figures of the Old West. Doc and Epitaph from Mary Doria Russell were not only entertaining stories but had me thinking a lot about fact vs. fiction when it comes to American myths.”

After finishing Doc I am excited to find and read Epitaph as this was a very well written and engrossing read. I actually knew a lot about Doc Holliday prior to reading this. In addition to having seen a half dozen westerns that portrayed him, I’d read an actual biography about him Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. As a result I had a pretty good idea of all of the historical details that make up the life of Doc, as well as the lack of resources available to verify the legend.

Before reading this book I was expecting a life story of the famous gunfighter but Russell wisely chooses to tell a story about his lesser known Dodge City days. The benefit of this is that the story can focus on humanizing Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and Wyatt & Morgan Earp before they become “famous” individuals. Holliday’s battles in this book involve trying to establish a dental practice, a relationship with Kate and live with consumption. Wyatt Earp’s conflicts center on understanding cowtown politics, adjusting to new teeth and living with a woman. The main plot (which is only loosely a straight forward narrative) is driven by the mystery of the death of a former slave and his missing money.

The use of guns in this book is significantly less than one would expect from the list of characters and setting which makes any moment with action feel much more important by comparison. Again this was a wise choice by Russell as the characters all obviously make it out of Dodge and down to Tombstone, so relying on life and death conflicts would not have had the same stakes as with an all fictional cast. Russell substitutes that action with horse racing, card games and a fist fights, all of which Holliday and the Earps are more vulnerable to.

Much like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, the nature of this title also allows for some fun historical notes afterward by Russell that provide a Cliff notes biography of Holliday for those not looking to read a whole non-fiction book or wikipedia entry about. There is also a nice table of characters at the beginning to distinguish from the real people with those created for the novel. A cursory glance shows that Russell used her creative liberty to both populate her town with more diversity and create a villain that she could portray as evil without offending any descendants.

My only criticism of this book was a recurring structure of introducing a character with lots of historical background at the beginning of each chapter. For main characters I found this interesting enough but once the story got moving the frequent detours seemed to drag the story more than they provided benefit in the form of context. I generally try to avoid plot spoilers or reading the backs of books ahead of time, so I look forward to finding out who or what exactly Epitaph is about.

4-star

“I”m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Author:  Iain Reid

Release Date: 2016

I'm thinking of ending things

“You will be scared, but you won’t know why.”

That’s the entire plot description on the back of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” an Award winning debut novel by Iain Reid. The rest of the book jacket is covered with glowing reviews and endorsements. There’s also a picture of a car covered in snow on the cover, and the words “A novel” handwritten on the bottom corner. Obviously the author and publisher feel the less you know going into this book the more you will enjoy it. While I never read the back of a book before purchasing/reading, I decided to check this one out after finishing it to see how they advertised it to readers because it’s the sort of book that will infuriate plenty of them.

I’m going to spoil the end of the book later on in this review, so here are some discussion questions for the group for if you should continue reading on through the spoilers. In order or relevance:

1) Did you enjoy either of the following movies “Shutter Island” or “Identity?”
2) Do you enjoy playing games likes Resident Evil and wish you could read a recap of the one of the levels from the perspective of the playable character?
3) Does spending nearly half a book on a two hour car ride with an unnamed narrator and her know it all boyfriend sound like a deal breaker up front?

How did you answer? If you enjoyed those two movies, I think you’ll probably enjoy this book. When I saw each of those, I was like McKayla Maroney on the podium (for those in the future, that’s a meme joke from a few years back that equals “not impressed”). It wasn’t that the stories were bad or the execution was poor. The problem with both of them was when they were released. After years of movies with (similar) twist endings, as a viewer I was conditioned to predict/expect the twist. But I was then double conditioned to be disappointed that it was the same twist I predicted. Those two films weren’t exactly Titanic, so if you missed both of them hopefully you’ll get my larger point from the context they’re mentioned. If I mention the earlier films with twist endings that were more popular, I’d just be spoiling the book by analogy.

The Resident Evil question will probably leave even more people scratching their heads. For the non-gamers out there, there is a whole genre of video games that capitalize on the horror genre. In them, the protagonist wanders out around quiet and seemingly empty structures aware that at any moment their death can be around the corner in some gruesome manner. For one excruciatingly long stretch of this book it felt like I was stuck inside one of those levels and it ended up souring me overall on its enjoyment. Even as a fan of horror movies, reading about a character wandering the halls of an empty building for 25 pages never felt at all suspenseful.

For many reviewers, the long car ride up front kept them from ever enjoying this book. I ranked that question third, because as revealed in the discussion questions section at the end of the book it was author Iain Reid’s favorite part to write and I personally did not mind it. My main critique from it was that the development of the narrator felt inorganic through so many memories being brought up. As a reader I knew right away I was being manipulated by the author. Before I knew the reveal at the end, this section (and to a lesser extent the arrival at the farm) were both fine. There were some interesting philosophical discussions and some good use of language that kept the otherwise routine undertaking from feeling tedious.

If you’re this far in and you don’t want to know what happens, I’ll wrap this up by saying that overall this book did not work for me. The ending felt predictable, with way too much buildup for a twist that was not only foreseeable but also the only logical way to wrap things up once the unnamed narrator sees the pictures at Jake’s house. While the writing was enjoyable during conversations, it did not work succeed at creating suspense in what should have been a terrifying situation.

**Spoilers Follow**

There is a subplot running through this book that never really goes anywhere. The narrator (whose name is not Steph, but could literally be anything else) is getting cryptic phone calls and mysterious voice mail from a male caller. She mentions that the caller ID states it is coming from her own phone number but she’s not sharing that with anybody. At that point I thought I saw a “Fight Club” twist coming on but hoped I’d be surprised by something else. (I didn’t mention “Fight Club” because everybody knows that twist, whereas if you’ve seen and remember “Identity” or “Shutter Island” you’ve been subjected to numerous similar twists and will see it coming). By the time the main character gets to the farm and sees a picture of herself, hears Jake do an exact impression of her, and experiences several continuity errors with the parents it’s obvious that she and Jake are one and the same.

Although that revelation is not confirmed until the final few pages, the entire sequence in the empty high school suffers as a result of that revelation hanging in the air. There is never any suspense that the narrator is in danger. The narrator directly stating “you can’t know how terrified I am because only somebody as alone in a situation like this would understand” only highlights how not terrified the reader is. Reid would be better served ignoring the twist ending unless it is more original than the one he employs here. Unfortunately the negatives in terms of predictability and lack of suspense outweigh the better scenes sprinkled throughout.

**Note – This is the second book I received as part of the Brilliant Books monthly Book subscription program. While I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I appreciate that it was a different genre from the first one and not a new release, so I have no idea what will be getting shipped to my house next.

2-star

“Lockdown” (Escape from Furnace #1) by Alexander Gordon Smith Review

lockdown

Lockdown

Author: Alexander Gordon Smith

Release Date: March 2009

This is another book I checked out based on recommendations from my favorite Goodreads reviewers, this one being by Emily May. Emily wrote, “If you’re looking for a tense, fast-paced and frightening book that pulls you in immediately and makes your heart pound, I cannot recommend Lockdown enough.”

This is definitely the type of book you can read in one sitting. The book is about 98% plot movement about a prison break. The prison is just for boys; it goes about a mile underground and features things that go bump in the night. The main character, Alex, is incarcerated for something he didn’t do, but much like the main characters in the film “Don’t Breathe,” he’s put himself in such a situation that you can’t feel entirely bad for him.

The main characters also include Donovan, a bigger kid that’s been in the prison since shortly after it was founded; Zee, another new guy who comes to the prison at the same time as Alex; and a couple of maniacs named Kevin and Gary. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time developing any of the characters. As the narrator, Alex has a couple of dream sequences and flashbacks, but the book is certainly more about where he is than who he was.

There are a few elements of the book that work because it is a young adult book but don’t really hold up as horror or science fiction. **Spoiler alert** If you’ve read “The Hunger Games,” you’ll know what’s going to happen to Monty as soon as he’s taken from his cell. The “guards” at the prison are conveniently few enough in number and consistent in routine, despite Alex’s assertions early on that they don’t follow any set schedule or rotation.

The book sets out a path and follows it at a brisk pace. I was actually expecting a twist in the execution of the prison break that never came. The ending of the book came so suddenly that it was obvious that the execution of their plan would occur as it did. While this hurts the ending as being a bit predictable, it also provided a satisfied conclusion that held up with the logic the book at set up. (view spoiler)

I’ve picked up a few books recommended by Emily May (somebody reviewing 250+ books a year tends to recommend a lot of ones that sound interesting), and based on this first one I look forward to checking more of them out.

4-star

“The Fortress at the End of Time” by Joe M. McDermott Review

fortress.jpg

The Fortress at the End of Time

Author: Joe M. McDermott

Release Date: January 2017

This was the first book I received as part of the Brilliant Books Monthly subscription that my wife got me for Christmas this year. For those not familiar, this is a neat service where you let the Brilliant Books people know your favorite and least favorite writers and they pick a book out for you every month (or however you set it up). I filled out their initial survey and also gave them a link to my Goodreads page, and my first book suggested was “The Fortress at the End of Time” by Joe McDermott. I own a ton of books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, so I was worried they would send one I already own. The book they sent was just released a few weeks ago, so I’m wondering if that’s normal for them to pick a new release to avoid sending a duplicate (but by the same token, I hope that somebody has read the books they are sending out ahead of time to make sure the quality is high).

So, enough about the service, how was the book? Overall it was good, but much like some of the early Hugo award winners I’ve read lately I don’t know if there was anything about it that I will be able to recall five years from now as really standing out. The story takes place in a far off future where man has colonized and terraformed numerous planets and systems, but told from a realistic stand point of the practical struggles of getting resources/people (and genetic diversity) to these far off locations. The method for accomplishing it is via an Ansible (similar to the one used for communication in “Ender’s Game” but on steroids) where messages can be sent instantaneously across time and space. In addition to messages however, exact replicas can also be sent across the cosmos when certain hydrogen, nitrogen, etc elements are in supply on the other side.

The story is told by Ronaldo Aldo, an Ensign who begins the book knowing he will be cloned and assigned an outpost somewhere in the Milky Way. The process of cloning is that Aldo enters an ansible and immediately another version of him is generated on the receiving end. The story then shifts and is told entirely from this new Ronaldo’s perspective. His assignment is a run down space station on the farthest edge of man’s exploration, and his task is to watch the instruments for signs of the enemy, an alien race that was fought in a war years before Aldo’s birth and not seen since. The outpost is a dump and considered the worst assignment an officer can get, and in addition to having limited resources it also has about a 50/4 ratio of men to women (if I remember right, that’s the entire population of the outpost). Located near the outpost is a planet in the process of being terraformed, one that can’t help but conjure visions of Arrakis from “Dune,” as the planet is mostly desert and water is the scare resource that must be constantly rationed/recycled. Only a few hundred people live on the planet, which contributes to the overall crappy nature of the mission.

The book has great internal logic, as the main character is not one that inspires confidence at any point in the novel and makes sense as a guy that would be rewarded with a crap assignment in an undesirable location. However that is also the biggest flaw of the book as the main character is the only one that is extensively developed and at no point is somebody the reader actively roots for. Aldo routinely alienates everybody he works with because of his arrogant attitude despite coming into the station with no idea of how anything works besides the one thing he’s specifically trained for. Even when he has good intentions of helping others out, he doesn’t attempt to work within the system or with others who were there before him. The ending of the book is a perfect example of this, as the character lives up to his personality throughout the rest of the book, which I found to be an interesting way to end it but may strike other readers as the cherry on top of an unpleasant read.

The supporting characters are delightfully diverse (just about every race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are represented in the small cast) however the first person storytelling severely limits the character arcs of all of them beyond Aldo’s views of them as people. The Betty and Veronica of Aldo’s book could not be more different: a physical specimen/beauty Sergeant that is a mystery to Aldo, and a post-op transgender colonist who immediately makes her desires known, however their character arcs could best be described as “desired by Aldo, not desired by Aldo” and vice versa.

Great characters are certainly not the book’s strong point, but high concepts still made it an enjoyable read. The idea of transcendence (being cloned to a better station in life) was a goal of most everybody involved, but the practicality of such a thing was addressed nicely. Any benefit of the process is actually bestowed on the cloned version of yourself, and that is a new person as soon as they are created, despite the shared memories with the original. The actual motivation for sending clones places is probably easy to figure out for many, but is explained nicely late enough in the book to make it a revelation I won’t spoil. The politics on the station reminded me more of stories from Battlestar Galactica than any other sci-fi I have read, so fans of that show may greatly enjoy this. So far Brilliant Books is 1 for 1 on sending an enjoyable book.

4-star

“Night Film” by Marisha Pessl Review

nightfilm.jpg

Night Film

Author: Marisha Pessl

Release Date: July 2013

** spoiler alert ** I began using Goodreads several years ago just as a place to track the books I read and give them a star rating. Like many others, I began expanding my use on here, first cataloging books onto various shelves, then tracking what my friends were reading, setting reading goals, and even reviewing the books I read (which has been much more helpful in remembering what I thought about book 15 in a 25 book series than a star rating was). This last year, I’ve really began to track other reviewers that write thoughtful reviews and read similar material to what I read. Based on those reviewers end of year lists, I made a shopping list for some of their favorite books they read last year and thought I’d try them out myself. Up first is “Night Film,” a book that Octavia picked as her favorite she read last year and described it at one point as follows: “There is not one thing that happens in this book that doesn’t contribute to the story. I adore Marisha Pessl’s writing style, and this book left me wanting more, and as they say, a good book always leaves you wanting more.”

For those not familiar, “Night Film” is the story of a disgraced reporter following up on the suicide of the daughter of a famous director. The reporter is disgraced because of his prior attempt at investigating the director (Cordova), and when he sees Cordova’s daughter shortly before her suicide he is drawn into the mystery of her death and, by proxy, Cordova’s life. Cordova is basically the ultimate recluse, so much so that even his actors and crew go into hiding after films, and his last six films have only been released underground. Along the way the reporter gets two sidekicks in his investigation and follows twists and turns that provide multiple explanations for the all of his questions.

My personal reading routine is pretty standard over the past several years, I read three books at a time, and try for 25 pages a day in each, with extra time to whichever book has captured my attention. I bring that up because this book benefitted from a slow nightly installment style read through. Every day I’d get a few more clues, and felt like I was participating in the investigation along with the main characters. The presence of media throughout the book (I don’t know how else to describe it) in the form of photos, magazine clippings, medical reports, also added to that feeling. The exception to that was at a point near the end of the book **spoilers follow** where the group breaks into the reclusive director’s estate. This section didn’t work for me as much as it basically read like the scene in any movie where a character induces a large quantity of drugs accidentally.

The ending of the book is likely to drive some people crazy, but if you follow along with the plotlines of the various Cordova films you’ll be able to see it coming a mile away and can’t complain too much as a result. **More spoilers** The reader is given two explanations for all of the plot twists in the book, one rooted in rationality, the second based on magic and mystery and religion. There’s a part of me that wishes the book had ended when McGrath (the main character) visits a nursing home and says “thank you,” but that probably explains what sort of person/reader I am. The third explanation for the book is given by McGrath to his friend that is a Cordova expert, and that is that he is inside a Cordova film, which the author doesn’t really elaborate on how that would even be possible but it’s actually the explanation that best explains all the occurrences throughout,

One of the biggest problems with the book is McGrath’s initial recklessness which causes him to become a disgraces journalist. The same thing would have made more sense later in the book, after he was wrapped up in the mystery, but seems out of character from everything else we learn about him throughout the book. I did not download the app because I didn’t realize there was one until I was finished with the book, and though I enjoyed it I didn’t enjoy it enough to go back and find all the other clues leading up to an ambiguous ending on a second flip through. Still, a solid read overall, thanks Octavia for the recommendation.

4-star