Review: A collection of short book reviews

Over the past few weeks I’ve read a number of books. Below are a few reviews to get caught up a little bit. If you want the full list of what I’ve been reading, feel free to “friend” me on Goodreads or comment down below. Always happy to have some good book discussions. The Silkworm The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in the Cormoran Strike books by the psuedonemous J.K. Rowling, this sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling picks up 8 months after the events in that first book. This time around, one-legged private detective Strike (and his plucky assistant Robin) get called into a case involving a missing (soon to be found dead) author and his poison pen latest novel, which provides no end of motives for the death. Now, in the tradition of all the great pot boilers, it’s up to Strike to discover the killer before it’s too late and an innocent is sent away for life. Now, I could go on about the intricacies of the plot or the characterizations or even Robert Glenister’s superb performance of the audio version but instead, I want to talk for a minute about Rowling. This book, like the one before it and the Harry Potter books, is eminently readable. It’s a page turner, for sure. The problem I had with it, though, is the same problem I had with the later Potter books (the first Strike book doesn’t necessarily fit into what I’m about to say by dint of its being a first book), namely that they exist in a vacuum of Rowling’s own design. The Silkworm takes place 8 months after Cuckoo and yet, that’s all we hear about. There are some other cases which have happened since then, mostly domestic spying kind of stuff, but nothing major. Every conversation between Robin and Strike revolves around the “Lulu Landry” case and its impact on their lives and career. There are no anecdotes, no in-jokes, no interim character development, really no sense of any time passing (besides superficially) since the last book ended. Even Strike’s relationship with the so-beautiful-she-can’t-be-real Charlotte Ross, the ending of which provided the bulk of the emotional thrust of the first book, comes back to provide the emotional thrust for this one. It’s as if life just stopped between novels and that bugs me. I also get bogged down by characters who get mad at perceived sleights without bothering to get clarification as happens between Strike and Robin. With the Potter books, this is fine since the characters are all teenagers, but in this contemporary crime drama, with adult characters, it just seems lazy. As well, it further points out this time discrepancy. It wold seem to me that after 8 months working together, at least some of these foibles would have already come out in the wash. It’s okay to have things happen off stage. We’re all sophisticated readers and can infer growth and development we don’t witness. Like running into an old friend after a while. We know things have happened and if we don’t immediately get it all, that’s okay. The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Listened to this one on the long drive from San Francisco to Phoenix and enjoyed it. The basic premise is that the first team to land on Mars runs into a bit of trouble and has their 31 day surface mission aborted early. In their haste to get to safety, crew member Mark Watney has an accident, is presumed dead and and left behind. Of course, being only “presumed” means he wakes up, realizes he’s in a rather precarious situation and sets about trying to get himself out. The story is told mostly through Watney’s journal entries as he attempts to “problem solve” his way into survival and contact with Earth, which is his only hope of rescue. Interstitial chapters have NASA officials and the crew of Ares 3, Watney’s mission, as viewpoint characters so we can see what’s going on on the other side of the rescue. Watney’s journals display a lightness, even in the face of overwhelming setbacks and calamities. Now the fact he sets us up to say he is writing it for future historians, it makes sense he would try and make the best of it. Like posts on Facebook, he’s always putting a good spin on things but we miss out on his despair and self-doubt, which would make him a truly fascinating, three dimensional character, rather than merely a guy we are having fun with. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a dark and stormy night, a baby is left in the back aisles of Island Books, owned by the titular A.J. Fikry. As time has gone on, we learn, Fikry, who is not the best in social situations to begin with, has lost his wife AND his proposed retirement, a rare volume of Edgar Allan Poe‘s poetry. Then, when things can’t get any worse, the baby shows up with a note saying she should be raised in a place where there are books. What follows is a meditation on life and literature as we watch Fikry develop as a person and how he, and his little bookstore, affect those around him. And it’s this aspect of the book which I liked so much. Because in reality, the book isn’t about Fikry any more than it’s about any of the other characters. Certainly, Fikry is central, but rather than people, this is the biography of a bookstore, which I think makes it much more interesting. Everything revolves around Island Books. The good, the bad, the living and the dead all walk through those doors and browse those shelves. The store itself is the protagonist. It has an arc and develops as the story moves through its paces. As it’s a book about a bookstore, literature is very present with a number of books and authors being mentioned. Additionally, each chapter opens with a brief editorial description of a classic short story (the meaning of which becomes clear long before it’s explained in the narrative). The stories inform the chapter, in a way, and provide a meta-narrative. Here’s a linked list in case you want a reading list.

Lamb to the Slaughter, 1953, Roald Dahl
The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Luck of Roaring Camp, 1868, Bret Harte
What Feels Like the World, 1985, Richard Bausch
A Good Man Is Hard to Find, 1953, Flannery O’Connor
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, 1865, Mark Twain
The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, 1939, Irwin Shaw
A Conversation with My Father, 1972, Grace Paley
A Perfect Day for Bananafish, 1948, J.D. Salinger
The Tell-Tale Heart, 1843, E.A. Poe
Ironhead, 2005, Aimee Bender
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, 1980, Raymond Carver
The Bookseller, 1986, Roald Dahl The Flying Sorcerers

The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A while ago, I started collecting books. I was looking for first editions, signed copies, books which affected me as a child. Books with sea monsters. Obviously a lot of these are science fiction novels. I recently bought a first edition of Anne McCaffrey‘s Dragonflight and while I was perusing the bookseller’s website, I came across this book, The Flying Sorcerers, the first novel by David Gerrold (co-written with Larry Niven). It was a signed, first edition and wasn’t terribly expensive so I picked it up. Once I had it, I figured I should probably read it. It’s a fun book. I’ve long said Niven is a “fan” of SF. His books have the air of a late night science fiction convention jam session among true aficionados and this collaboration feels the same. The plot takes as it’s starting point the Arthur C. Clarke quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” where a scientist (“Purple”) from a star-faring civilization visits a backwater planet with magic and a strong belief in all sorts of gods. What follows is a romp as Purple, who is mistaken for a magician, tries to discover what he can about the indigenous people, whose own sorcerer declares war on Purple. The remainder of the book is the fallout from this continuing battle of wizards and includes flying machines, (sexist) representations of marriage and family and enough Tuckerizations to choke a horse. This is not great literature, but it is a fun read, a time capsule of the SF world of the early 70s. The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ever since Gone Girl, there’s been a preponderance of thrillers where none of the characters are decent human beings and horrible things happen to everyone. The latest in popular books to fit that description is The Girl on the Train. In this one, sad, fat, alcoholic Rachel, divorced and alone, rides the train every day in and out of the city. Every day, when the trains slows at a crossing, she sees a couple on the balcony of a house and she imagines their perfect life. Then the woman disappears and Rachel gets involved in a murder investigation which brings in her ex-husband, his new wife and baby, the husband of the dead girl and a whole bunch of suppressed history. By the time the story resolves itself, no one is blameless in the interconnectedness of the world Hawkins  creates. Everyone has ghosts and everyone has a past and no one is who they think they are. This isn’t a bad book, it’s well-written and well plotted. There are surprise revelations and a decent resolution. But for me, I get tired of stories where there isn’t a single, decent character. I don’t mind complexity but out and out shittiness gets tiring after a while. View all my reviews

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