Recommended? Dear god yes. This book is incredible.
Summary: graciously provided by Goodreads
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
Review: Room is told entirely from Jack’s point of view, which is an absolute stroke of genius for a book that could otherwise so easily become a melodramatic mess. I don’t think I’ve ever read a five-year-old written so convincingly. Jack is smart, curious, devious, adorable — even I liked him, and I don’t usually care for children, fictional or otherwise. Oh, and Jack is brave, incredibly brave for carrying through his Ma’s escape plan while he still only vaguely understands that there is something to escape to or from.
I’m a little afraid of giving away too much of the plot, because I read this book in three large gulps (interrupted only by food and sleep) and I remember it largely as a glorious experience of discovery. Rather like being a five-year-old, actually. Not everything discovered is good, and certainly Jack doesn’t like it all (he’s not terribly fond of wind the first time he meets it), but it’s all thrilling.
My favorite thing about Room, though, was Ma. Although she has a name and I’m sure it’s mentioned in the text, Jack thinks of her just as Ma, and, with good reason, she’s thought of herself as Ma for the past five years – five years spent in awful captivity. She’s twenty-six, but the last time she was in the world she was nineteen and just going to college. Now she’s a mother and a victim and a survivor and a celebrity, and while she doesn’t handle it all perfectly or with absolute grace, she handles it, and I think that’s really the most important part. She handles it, and she’s amazing, and (not to spoil you or anything) she and Jack are going to be okay.
For a book with such a bleak premise, Room is really amazingly uplifting and optimistic. (I shy away from that horrible word “heartwarming,” but I think it’s that too.) Don’t mistake this for a Lifetime movie; it’s plenty gritty and awful in parts. But Room is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read at all.
Recommended? Only if you’re a huge zombie completest (or if you need a quick dose of zombies – this is a fast read at less than 200 pages).
Summary: It’s 2012, and two-thirds of humanity has been wiped out by ANSD – the zombie virus. In a last-ditch attempt to find some hope for humanity’s future, the UN has organized a scientific research station on an isolated island. These are the last reports from Dr. Stanley Blum, whose fate remains unknown.
Review: I wanted to like this book. It’s a fantastic idea, a story of the zombie apocalypse told through the journals of a medical researcher. The book is framed as if you are a member of the UN commission that is going to be making recommendations based on these papers, so it includes some notes from UN officials and appendices like the journals of some of the other scientists and the text of the Treaty of Atlanta which determined that zombies are officially no longer human (and may thus be experimented on without ethical qualms). I was pleased to see that more than one person in the book mentions that, Treaty of Atlanta aside, there are plenty of ethical issues going on here, but how can you be expected to care about ethics when the future of the humanity is at stake?
And that’s the point of zombies, isn’t it? You become so terrified of turning into them that you might stop being human before they get you anyway. Of course, there’s a big difference between even shady medical research and eating the brains of anyone and everyone you come across, but.
The actual book doesn’t follow through on the excellent setup, unfortunately. Written by an epidemiologist, The Zombie Autopsies tries to give a medical explanation for the stereotypical traits of George Romer0-style zombies, but it falls short. (Which is not to slight Schlozman’s medical knowledge; I just don’t think it’s possible to give a feasible explanation for how a human body in that state of decay can remain functional.) The failed attempt at hardcore realism put me off: I prefer my creatures to be either entirely believable or just plain supernatural, and this middle ground destroys my suspension of disbelief. It’s not a bad book, by any stretch of the imagination, but once that suspension of disbelief is gone, it’s not coming back, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this.
Recommended? Not in particular. If you like Victorian melodrama, this might suit you better than it did me.
Summary (graciously provided by GoodReads):
Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant’s body in a rich lady’s coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper’s grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace’s life. But Grace doesn’t know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune.
Review: I should have liked this book. It’s a story set in and around the Victorian funeral trade, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. It features the horrible treatment of “fallen” women in the Victorian age, along with characters with mental illness. There’s a certain amount of, well, melodrama in all of these aspects, but handled well I usually enjoy them.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Hooper uses an interesting device throughout the book; each chapter opens with a snippet of print, either an advertisement from a newspaper, a calling card, or something of that sort. Chosen well these could add a great deal of atmosphere to the story; in this case they were used as signposts for the plot, telegraphing plot twists so far in advance that there was only one twist I didn’t see coming as soon as the groundwork was laid. (And even that one, I threw up my hands and said, “Oh, of course!” because in a story this tidy, it couldn’t have been anything else.)
There’s a difference between tidiness and tightness in plotting. A tight plot is one where everything falls into place, not by the invisible hand of the author but because you look at the characters and their situation and can’t imagine anything else happening. A tidy plot, on the other hand, is one where everything – everything – that happens is connected and all the loose ends are tied up in a nice little bow. I hate a tidy plot; it makes the whole story seem fake. Dickens – the inevitable comparison for stories about destitute Victorian orphans – could get away with it because he wrote such huge, sprawling stories with so many characters in them, but a 200 page YA novel cannot support that kind of tidiness.
Fallen Grace could have been saved by interesting characters, but alas, Grace herself is singularly ineffectual. She spends most of the book reacting to events, and the few actions she does take are the direct result of conversations she has with someone else. I had hopes for Lily, her mentally disabled sister, but after a couple of establishing scenes from her point of view she mostly disappears from the narrative as an actor. I finished the book out of a desire to see if anything unexpected would happen, but alas, it did not. The book wasn’t painful to read, but I require more than just acceptable writing (with, admittedly, interesting historical details) in my novels.
Recommended? Absolutely. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Kraken – I adored Kraken – but like any good Miéville book, this positively blows the top off your head.
Summary: Avice Brenner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a small settlement tucked in the corner of a large alien city, out on the edge of known space. The aliens – the Hosts – can speak no lies, and know no symbolic language: everything they say must be true. When she was a girl, she was made into a simile, so that the Hosts could talk about things that are like the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. Then she became an immerser, a sailor of that vast unknown that allows travel between distant worlds. When she married a linguist, she went back home to Embassytown.
Now that she’s an immerser, she’s a person of some little importance. She makes friends with the Ambassadors, the only people who can speak with the Hosts. But when their colony’s home world sends out a new kind of Ambassador…well, they had no idea how badly it could go.
Review: Well, China Miéville’s done it again, yet another ridiculously original, mindbending book about the possibilities inherent in the things we use every day. This time it’s language: words and similes and metaphors, communication and understanding. And, ultimately, fiction, that miraculous act of telling truth with lies.
Embassytown reminded me much more of the Bas-Lag books than the newer this-world Kraken or The City & The City. Perhaps it’s just that it’s set on an alien world, with fantastical alien creatures, but I think it’s also that Embassytown is a little more allegorical than Miéville has been lately. This is not a criticism, by the way; it’s definitely not one of those annoying allegories that makes you roll your eyes and wonder what the point of all that was. No, this is more subtle, with lots of twisty turns and plenty of opportunities for alternative interpretations. But it’s hard not to start drawing parallels when you’ve got a story about a war started by political maneuvering by people who clearly had no idea at all about the situation on the ground.
There’s a time jump in the middle of the book that really threw me off, a section that skims over some fairly important events, but aside from that the pacing is excellent, with a nice long introduction to get you accustomed to the world and its people before it starts throwing things at your head. I found that the balance of exposition was just right – the narrative will go along cheerfully without you, letting you scramble to keep up with new characters and ideas, and just when you start to feel overloaded, there’s a chapter’s worth of explanation. This makes the first few chapters kind of tough going, but hold on, it will all make sense soon.
By the end of the book, I was reminded of a comment Jo Walton made on her reviews of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, that they were like Tolkein in that very few people will create a fantasy universe only to destroy the unique magic in it. Embassytown does something of the same thing, although in a very different way, and with very little patience for the melancholy that goes along with the way Tolkein does such things. The world changes in Embassytown, permanently and certainly, and no one really knows whether or not that’s a good thing. It is simply a thing that is.
Recommended: Oh god yes. A spectacular ending to a spectacular series. You want to read this.
Review: Once again, it cannot be avoided, there will be SPOILERS for this and previous books in this review.
It is fifteen years since the end of the world. The Emperor Otah Machi has been fighting for the survival of his people, and negotiations with Galt are finally going smoothly. With luck, marriages between Galtic women and Khaiate men will be commencing, initiated by the marriage of the Emperor’s son Danat to Ana, the daughter of one of the Galtic High Council. But Otah’s daughter Eiah can’t support his plan — she thinks he’s throwing away a whole generation of women just because they can’t bear children. She’s turned to her Uncle Maati, who is convinced that with female students, he can rewrite the grammar and bind a new andat, one who can restore the world to the way it used to be.
He’s wrong. Nothing will ever be the way it used to be.
They say that good versus evil is a fine basis for a plot, but if you really want to wrench people’s hearts, try good versus good. This book isn’t quite to that level, but it’s close. The Price of Spring alternates between Otah’s and Maati’s points of view, giving the reader plenty of opportunity to compare their diametrically opposed and equally stupid plans. Otah thinks he can just move on without healing any of the wounds caused by the war; Maati thinks he can make the war never have happened. You can see the end from here, and it doesn’t look pretty.
That problem I was having with the earlier books in the series where I’d put it down and forget about it for a week? Not happening here. The pace in this one is perfect, steady and almost doom-laden. Every note I wrote in Goodreads as I updated (and several more that I didn’t bother to type in) was some variation on “Really, Maati, you didn’t see that coming?” And while Otah’s plan for the future is clearly more than a little short-sighted, Maati’s has all the fascination of a train wreck. It’s skillfully executed; you can tell that Abraham has been improving throughout this series, which is always good to see.
There are still two things that bother me about this series, which unfortunately wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so well-written. First of all, this is a wonderfully-realized, complex world, with several cultures, plenty of variation within those cultures, and all kinds of people within them. And every one of them is straight. Oh, there is finally a mention in this book of someone who might possibly have been less than straight at one point in the past, but that’s it. With such a detailed world, the omission starts to seem glaring.
The other problem I have is with the female characters. They’re great characters, don’t get me wrong – I love Eiah, and the mad poet Vanjit is a fascinating character. The problem I have is more with the overall shape of the story: with one possible exception, there are no female characters who succeed at anything. Anything other than marriage, that is. Idaan tried to take over the throne in A Betrayal in Winter, but was caught and cast out; now she is happily married to Cehmai. Kiyan does a fine job of managing the city in An Autumn War, but that was something she did out of necessity, not a goal of her own. Despite her business success, Liat is portrayed as incredibly unhappy. And then, of course, Vanjit becomes the first female poet and goes mad. It’s a slightly depressing pattern. I do often complain that fantasy is annoyingly unrealistic in its treatment of women, usually preferring to pretend to equality rather than dealing with any issues with the lack of gender equality, but I don’t think the alternative is to leave women with nowhere to go.
Despite these small complaints, I found The Price of Spring a wonderful, satisfying conclusion to an incredible series. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy with strong, interesting characters and well-rounded worldbuilding. If you’d like to see someone else’s take on the series, check out Jo Walton’s reviews at Tor.com.
Series: The Long Price Quartet
Where I got it and why: I needed some good storytelling, and when I want just plain storytelling I always turn to YA. I pulled a couple of books from The List to request from the library, and this was one of them. (I’m sure I heard of it originally from a book blog, but I just can’t remember which one…)
Recommended? Yes, particularly if you like true crime (which this book has much more in common with than a murder mystery, although it is a novel)
Review: Six years ago, ten year old Jennifer Jones killed her best friend. Now Alice Tully is trying to build a new life for herself. She’s got a job at a coffee shop, a boyfriend, and a good shot at normality, but will she get to keep any of it?
This book has the least convoluted plot but the most interesting structure of anything I’ve read recently. The story itself is straightforward, an excruciatingly sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who had killed someone when she was only a child, and how she attempts to deal with that and the normal problems of adolescence. We’re introduced to Alice Tully first, and as her past slowly begins to creep up on her, we flash back in more and more extensive detail to her childhood and the terrible event that defines her life.
Within the first couple of chapters I realized that this book is actually a fictionalization of the famous case of Mary Bell, which I read about earlier this year in Gitta Sereny’s incomparable Cries Unheard. Cassidy changed some details for her YA novel, which I was originally a little annoyed by, since I do think some of them are substantial to the meaning of the case – the victim being much younger versus roughly the same age, the degree of abuse the girl suffered in her home life – but then I realized that what Cassidy did was tone it down to the point where it was actually readable. I know I found Cries Unheard to be extremely tough going, and on reflection I can’t imagine some of those things being included in any novel, never mind a YA novel.
As you have probably concluded by now, Looking for JJ is one of those YA novels people have been complaining about lately, one of those things saturated with darkness. But it’s saturated with something else, too – empathy. This is a story about someone who has done something horrible and knows it, about coming to terms with that and learning how to move on even though she can never forget or atone. It’s also a story about learning how and why she could have done such a thing, and doing her best to make sure she would never do something like that again, even though that means making impossibly hard choices. It’s incredibly grown-up stuff, but as the fact that it’s based on a true story makes obvious, it’s not stuff that only grown-ups have to deal with.
I found this not only a good read, but an important book, the kind of book that librarians ought to keep on the YA shelves because there might be a kid out there who needs it. Looking for JJ is not trying to prove anything, it has no secret agenda or ultimately uplifting message, but it’s a book full of compassion for damaged people. It is an example of the best of what dark YA can do.
Where I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.
Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.
Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.
And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.
Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.
For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.
All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.
Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?
In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
Where I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)
Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.
Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)
Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)
It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.
The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.
Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.
The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound